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EdTech Voice Notes with Mark Simpson and Jonathan Eaton

Welcome to the sixth episode of EdTech Voice Notes, the podcast of the EdTech Summit.

The guest of this episode is Mark Simpson, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Learning & Teaching), and Jonathan Eaton, Academic Registrar both at Teesside University.

In the discussion, we have the opportunity to talk about mental health and wellbeing, remote and blended learning, and the future of education.

Listen to the full episode here:

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To hear more from Mark Simpson and Jonathan Eaton, alongside others leading in delivering effective digital and technology-focused solutions for education, secure your free pass here to the EdTech Summit, taking place online on the 18-19th November 2020.

Alessandro Bilotta 00:54

Welcome to this week's episode of EdTech Voice Notes, the podcast of the EdTech Summit. For the first time this week, we have two guests on the episode, both representing Teesside University. Professor Mark Simpson is Pro Vice -Chancellor for learning and teaching. And Jonathan Eaton who is Academic Registrar. Mark, Jonathan, would you like to tell us a bit more about yourself and your background?


Mark Simpson 01:21

Hi Alessandro, firstly, thank you very much for the invitation. So I'm Professor Mark Simpson, I'm Pro Vice-Chancellor learning and teaching, as you say, and I'm quite unusual in the sector in that I've always been at Teeside. So I studied my undergraduate degree there and went on to do a PhD in criminology. And it's a real privilege to work at university that so committed to students learning and really supporting students go on and achieve the best that they can. And within that we've been doing a lot within the Digital sector in recent years. And that's a real passion of mine.


Jonathan Eaton 01:56

Hi, Alessandro. Thank you very much for inviting us on the podcast today. It's tremendous to be here. So as you introduce me, I'm Jonathan Eaton, the Academic Registrar at Teesside University, an academic registry looks after a number of work streams within the university, and that includes quality assurance. It includes academic policy and regulations. And it also includes learning and teaching enhancement. And that means our learning systems and how we support and train our staff to use them effectively to deliver an outstanding student experience.


Alessandro Bilotta 02:30

I would like to start this episode asking you about the approach to well being at Teesside University. Mental well-being and well-being more in general seems to be a key priority at your university, as it is in the life of many of us during these times. A year ago, you launched a mental health program to provide support to students and staff in partnership with Mind and Goldman Sachs. Imagine that in the current difficult circumstances, this program is needed more than ever. What can you tell us about the program's achievements in its first year, Mark?


Mark Simpson 03:06

Thank you. Yes, it was a real honor to join the partnership. A number of universities joined the partnership with Goldman Sachs and, and Mind. And it was the first of its kind in the mentally healthy University's program. And it's it's really designed to think about how we support both our students and staff, and on a range of mental health and well being matters, as you say, during the pandemic that has become increasingly in focus, but it's something that we've been trying to do within the university for some time now. That is, by taking a whole university approach to this issue, that we can support our staff and students in very open and transparent ways. So try to remove some of the stigma attached to this area of work. Think very carefully about how we can support people through specialist training that's provided both externally to our staff within this space. But also as well in terms of how we support and use peer support to support students who may be facing a whole range of different challenges. Some of them may be general anxiety related to things like undertaking examinations, but some of them can be are way more severe, and form of mental illness. And again, ensuring that we have the right support in place has been crucial. As part of our work during the pandemic, we've switched some of our support services online. So we've been using Microsoft Teams to ensure that where students need to engage in for example counseling so we can continue to do that, despite the fact that the campus was closed during lockdown. That support is proved really vital for many of our students. But it's fair to say that some of them have had some challenges in terms of accessing that. And that's made us think about how we continue to support students during our hybrid model. And I guess it links into thinking around digital poverty. So one of the things that we didn't anticipate was that students have been reporting that having an appropriate space to work has been a challenge. And that's really at the fore of counseling. So where students haven't had access to a private space, and despite the fact that those facilities were available online, and they've not felt comfortable engaging with them. So we've ensured that during the hybrid, our hybrid model that we continue both having an online facility, but also as well, to ensure that students can come in and book space on the campus. And we have had, it is fair to say, an increase in activities for our staff as levels of mental health problems and issues related to well-being have absolutely increased during the pandemic. And we've put some more resources into this space. And it's something that we're absolutely committed to. But it really is a whole university approach and ensuring that we remove the stigma that's at the heart of what we're trying to do.


Alessandro Bilotta 06:15

And what you've just said, resonates with what we discussed with Maren Deepwell, the chief executive of ALT, we discuss the official students report and the findings of that report about how students as you say, felt that not having an appropriate space where to learn actually affected the learning itself, and their own well being. On social digital divide, another very important topic, Helen Milner will be with us at the EdTech Summit, delivering a keynote on this topic at the beginning of the second day on the 19th of November. At the EdTech Summit, we focus our discussions on the creation and implementation of digital strategies in educational institutions. What is Teesside University's approach to it's digital strategy? How do you involve all relevant stakeholders in the process? And what are its key elements?


Mark Simpson 07:15

I'll just start by talking through our future facing learning approach. And then I'll hand over to Jonathan just for a little bit more in terms of some detail around that. But we introduced future facing learning, which is our learning and teaching approach about four years ago now, but it's absolutely underpinned. And our digital strategy really focuses upon supporting that that learning and teaching approach. So we want students to be digitally empowered, globally connected, and future ready and various other aspects. But let me just talk about digital empowerment. Really, the the key element to that is to ensure that students are using technology in the appropriate way and unstaffed as well. And one of the things that we've been absolutely clear on is that we didn't want to force digital into places that it didn't belong so it's absolutely about blending it with our kind of physical strategy for want of a better term, and to ensure that those two things absolutely meet, and the students getting the very, very best learning experience. I'll let Jonathan just talk about the detail that sits underneath that.


Jonathan Eaton 08:20

Thanks, Mark. Here at Teesside University future facing learning is absolutely core to our learning and teaching strategy. And as Mark mentioned, one of the five central themes is the digital empowerment of staff and students. I think all organizations face a challenge as to how they breathe life into their digital strategy, so that it is meaningful for all members of the university community. And here at Teesside, I suppose there's been three distinctive elements of that, first of all, is providing parity in access to technology. So when we launched future facing learning, we rapidly introduced our future facing Learning Toolkit, which is the suite of apps that we make available to staff and students, and which really forms the core of how we embed technology within learning. As Mark referenced earlier, none of this is mandated. So the toolkit is very much there to support staff with a range of software that they may use for their particular curriculum needs. We supported that deployment with a very comprehensive mandatory training program for teaching staff, our digital deployment program, and that's something I'll come to describe in more detail perhaps later in this podcast. But I think it was very unusual at the time as being a mandatory development program focused on digital technologies for teaching staff in higher education. And the third element in terms of breathing life into our strategy is how we've embedded it within our policy framework. So when we came to review the documentation for the approval In Review of courses, we build future facing learning into that documentation, challenging course teams to reimagine how they use digital technologies to influence to inform and to empower students on their particular courses.


Alessandro Bilotta 10:16

I'm sure that what you've just described as being pulled towards stress this year, we will probably always remember 2020 as the year that put everyone in a very difficult and unexpected situation where we had to make the best out of the circumstances we were in. I'd like to take our listeners on a small journey to tell the story of how teaching and learning at your university has changed in 2020. What was the context pre lockdown? how prepared were you for what was about to happen?


Jonathan Eaton 10:52

The work that we've undertaken over the last four years as part of the implementation of future facing learning really provided us with a strong base on which to build throughout the pandemic. And there's probably two elements that I'll flesh out in a little bit more detail. So the first one is our advanced scheme, which is the provision of an iPad keyboard, and 100 pound book token for E resources, which are provided to all of our first year undergraduates. The purpose of that is to provide all students with access to our future facing Learning Toolkit, so that there's a very stable technology base within each classroom. What that meant was that from the outset of the pandemic, we recognize very swiftly that the majority of our students had access to technology and knew how to use it. And that ran in parallel, of course, to our digital Development Program, which I mentioned earlier, a mandatory training program, which has now been successfully completed by over 700 academics across the university. The digital development program meant that all of our teaching staff were equipped with the capability to use the future facing Learning Toolkit. And of course, those skills came in handy as we moved into lockdown and beyond. The digital development program itself, is mapped against the Microsoft innovative educator program. And therefore, we've had a number of staff who've been recognized as Microsoft innovative educator experts. And we continue to track the impact of that through module evaluation surveys every semester. So what that meant was that from the outset of the pandemic, we knew that we had a sound base on which to build. But there are immediate things, of course, that we needed to do in preparation. And we began our planning relatively early as concern began to grow around the evolution of the pandemic itself, before we reach lockdown. So one of the first things we did was to run an audit of staff technology requirements across all of our modules, essentially trying to understand the technological requirements of all teaching staff. Some of that, of course, was hardware. Some of it was software, some of it was more nebulous around whether they had good broadband connectivity at their home location. What that allowed us to do was to take some very quick steps initially, to make sure that our teaching base was secure, and that we could continue to deliver modules as planned. Around the time of lockdown itself, we then put two exercises in play. The first one is our resilience review tool, which essentially is a tool for every course to identify its resilience for moving online, what could be done, what would need to be changed in current planning, what that allowed us to do was to understand how the curriculum itself would be impacted by the pandemic. And we aligned that with our module assessment tracker, which essentially interrogated the assessment strategy across every module in the university and our partners to understand how we could optimize assessment methods for online delivery as opposed to on campus. These different elements were brought together to make sure that we had a comprehensive oversight, both of how the curriculum would work fully online, but also the support we needed to put in place for staff and students alike. As we moved into lockdown and beyond.


Alessandro Bilotta 14:33

On Friday, the 23rd of March, the Prime Minister of the UK makes an announcement around the lockdown measures. What was your first reaction? What measures did you have to put in place yourself the following Monday when you were back at work?


Mark Simpson 14:49

I think by the time the announcement came we were anticipating that some kind of lockdown would go on and I guess what we didn't realize at the time time. Once that it would go on for quite the length of time that it did. So I think most people are anticipating in those very early days and rather optimistically that it would just be a few weeks, and we would all be back on campus. And obviously, that didn't happen. So our planning evolved as the as the pandemic evolved. But certainly, as Jonathan said, we felt we were in a space, we had a strong base to build, we'd put staff through a digital development program, we had fairly sophisticated deployment of technology. So we knew that that would stand us in good stead, we originally went to a reading week just to buy some time just to ensure that when the students did move to the online delivery, that people would have had time to think that through when we didn't want students to go into a panic because it was well through the semester. And we obviously had to redesign some of our assessments and ensure that we were in line with the regulations in doing that. But really starting to reimagine what the world could look like online. We, you know, as I started this conversation with you, Alessandro, in terms of mental health and student well being they were at the heart of what we were doing. So we ensure that we put a lot of focus in those spaces as well around reassuring students, we changed the regulations, we allowed students an automatic deferral to give them time, we were very conscious that because of our student body, many of them would have caring responsibilities with children not being in school. And so we ensured that throughout that students could pick up their learning in more flexible ways. And obviously, the delivery of modules online enabled us to do that. As the pandemic has evolved, we've continued to reflect on our strategy. We've tried to address digital poverty through Jonathan referenced the advanced scheme, we've just expanded that scheme so that students can use their 100 pounds a year, instead of just buying books, they can now buy data, for example, to tether their iPads to mobile phones to enable them to get internet access. We've just expanded that scheme into other areas to allow students to buy other things that may be useful during the pandemic, we've continued to try to develop both the online facilities, but also as well now look at how we can blend that whilst we deliver our hybrid model. We're currently giving all students four hours a week on the campus that runs alongside our online and we continue to evolve, we continue to take student feedback and use that to shape our strategy moving forward.


Alessandro Bilotta 17:45

What's your assessment of how teaching and learning has worked during lockdown?


Jonathan Eaton 17:51

I think it's important to recognize how challenging for both staff and students continuing to provide high quality learning experience was during the initial national lockdown. And I think it's a huge testament to staff across the higher education sector, that universities continue to provide that really high quality delivery across the entire curriculum. But saying that, I would say from a personal perspective, that learning and teaching during the lockdown really saw an acceleration of the adoption of new strategic approaches to digital empowerment here at Teesside in a number of different ways. First of all, inevitably, we really stretched the capabilities of our key learning tools and platforms. And we work very closely with teaching staff to understand how we could adapt our technology suite to meet their pedagogic needs. And those of course of their students as well. It was really important during that initial phase, to make sure that our use of technology underpinned, but didn't supplement the pedagogic educational rationale for what we were trying to achieve. And the way that we crafted our assessments to be optimized for online delivery is a really good example of that as well. The other element that I think was fundamental and remains critical to how we're currently operating under our hybrid model is to remain adaptable. As issues arise as we gather student feedback and suggestions on what we can learn and what we can do differently. So at the end of the second week, before online delivery after the national lockdown, we introduced a student poll survey, which basically asked all of our students for their feedback on how they were finding the new mode of delivery, and also whether they understood how things would operate moving forward in terms of how their learning each week would be structured, and how their assessments would operate. As well, that allowed us to build up a very rapid picture of what was working across the university and be able to scale up some of that really great practice. And make sure that as on an ongoing basis, we built training, support and additional resources for teaching staff, we were able to capture what was working effectively on the ground, and make sure that that was shared across the university, and with our partners as well. Moving forward, that heavy focus on understanding the student experience will remain at the forefront of what we do. And in fact, we're currently in week three of our first semester of the academic year, and our new student poll survey is underway as we speak, gathering actionable intelligence from our students as to how we can drive enhancements across the university moving forward.


Alessandro Bilotta 20:51

Well, as you just said, In September, Teesside university campus reopened and the university now follows this hybrid learning model. The Learning and Teaching enhancement team is providing further training to teaching staff on how to best teach under these new circumstances. How's the hybrid model been received by students and staff?


Jonathan Eaton 21:14

The hybrid model provides a flexible framework for delivery. And it's really made us reconsider how and where we add value in terms of the educational experience. And that means considering what works effectively online but also the value which is added through on campus physical interactions as well. Now to understand this, we've really had to remodel how we use data within the institution. And 12 months ago, we introduced our new learner analytics platform stream, as we went into lockdown, we change the weightings, we allocate to particular engagement measures through the platform, so that we were able to understand in a lot more detailed, and weights appropriately, how students engaged with their online learning. And that's provided us with individual snapshots as to how students are learning through the hybrid model. But I think most importantly, we're fully transparent in how we use that data. So as well as being able to understand when and how a student engages with their learning, whether that's in person or online. We also surface that data through a dashboard to our students. So they're able to understand what their learning habits look like, and what they mean. And that's allowed us to derive actionable insights at an individual level into how each of our students are performing, which we can then utilize with our personal tutors and our student support services. Now, when we started on the feature face in learning journey, Mark was very clear that we would know it was effective when we began to see innovation and new and exciting ways. And I'm really pleased to say that that's continued even during the pandemic, with staff members using technology in ways that we hadn't previously conceived. One of the initiatives that I'm particularly excited about is our new approach to induction using Minecraft, where a group of staff and students rebuild the campus online through Minecraft, which means that students are able to orient themselves before arrival with how the campus looks and how it operates. And that works on a number of different levels. It reduces anxiety in students that are coming onto campus. But most importantly, it builds that sense of belonging community, between staff and students, which often can be challenging to replicate online compared to a physical environment.


Mark Simpson 23:44

With such innovation, we've seen fantastic feedback from students. We've seen both that through qualitative comments in evaluations and surveys, we use an electronic module evaluation survey. And that's enabled us to capture insights as Jonathan's discussed, but also as well, in terms of just some of the feedback that students have provided in in more open forums. For example, some of our students that have dyslexia have talked about the way in which the access to technology has really transformed the way in which they learn. And we've also seen, I think, through this pandemic, academics accept that some of the research around pedagogy needs to lead to real change. So we've seen staff moving away from, for example, the traditional one hour lecture and starting to break down that learning into smaller and more innovative chunks, using digital tools to do that. And again, that's been really, really well received by students.


Alessandro Bilotta 24:48

The answer to this question now seems quite obvious after what you've just said, but do you think there's going to be a permanent shift in the way we approach education, and I'm thinking not only in higher education, but also further education and primary and secondary schools.


Mark Simpson 25:04

Some thing profound as has really happened, actually what I think and I describe it as such as it's been a real shot in the arm, I think in terms of the advancement of, of the use of digital technologies within learning and teaching. But what we don't know, is the long term feedback from students, we don't know what the impact of this style of learning and teaching. So I think what we don't know is what the blend will look like in the future, certainly, as Jonathan's described, you know, we've seen some real innovation and inevitably, that will be here to stay. But students do value face to face, we've seen that throughout this pandemic, there has been a real desire of our student body to be back on the campus. And there is something that is very special about that social dimension of learning that that is very difficult to recreate online. What we also mustn't forget, though, is that these things are not, there's no binary divide between face to face, and the use of digital technologies, I think what we will start to see is more use of technology within the classroom, as we start using augmented reality in new and innovative ways. And I think there's been a real acceptance that the use of technology has something very, very special to add to education. We saw it when we put all of our staff through the mandatory digital development program, we received 96% satisfaction from our staff, when they undertook that program, and to me that told me always that the notion that academics were against the use of technology, and was simply wrong, that actually if you can empower people in the appropriate ways, then they will use technology in really exciting ways. Jonathan's already said it but something that I've always been very keen on is that we don't force digital into spaces that it doesn't belong. So therefore, it's always about that blend, how do we use both the kind of human mind and the technology to to best educate our students? How do we equip them to use technology in new, exciting, innovative ways? And I think they're the big questions that we're still grappling with. And we mustn't forget, you know, the digital inclusion, digital poverty, there are real issues, there are real issues that we need to grapple with students abilities to to access, the internet, or even for our staff is not as straightforward as it should be edgy rome is very, very good. But it starts and ends on our campus. And I think we really, as a country, we need to think very seriously about how do we address those types of issues to ensure that if we are to use technology, and that that doesn't lead to, to further exclusion, and particularly when we're reaching down into FE and secondary and primary schools, that becomes an even bigger issue that we absolutely must resolve, we mustn't move one step forward and two back by further creating gaps between those that have access to technology and those that don't.


Alessandro Bilotta 28:21

We can't end this episode without first answering our usual question. How can we bridge the gap between education and technology?


Jonathan Eaton 28:30

I think there were three things that we need to do to effectively bridge that gap between education and technology. Firstly, we need to bridge the gap within the education sector. And what I mean by that is understanding the range of innovative practices that have grown exponentially over the last couple of years within every aspect of the educational sector, from nursery to primary school, to secondary school, to colleges and universities. And sometimes I worry that we don't fully understand what that looks like across the educational experience. And then potentially over the years to come. Students might have a quite uneven trajectory in how technology is used to enhance their learning as they progress through the educational system, up to universities and beyond into the workplace. And I think there's scope nationally for far better understanding and engagement across the sector, to share the practice of teaching staff and understand what works in granular detail and also make sure we smooth that trajectory for students so that their expectations are met as they progress on their educational journey. The second element is to strengthen working with technology partners, but in particular to focus on what Technology allows us to do, that we couldn't otherwise do in our educational practice, whether that's online or in the physical classroom itself. And I think there's a real opportunity here at a national level, to catalyze some of this thinking and innovation, and really position us the UK as an edtech leader globally, for how we build those strong relationships between educational practitioners in schools, colleges and universities, and technology experts in industry, and how we do so in a way, which delivers an outstanding student experience at every level of the educational sector. And that, of course, is predicated on the third thing we need to do, which is to win understand, in a rigorous and robust way, what works on the ground, to build a framework of evaluation, which allows us to understand that value that it adds to the student experience, and how that impact is realized in terms of retention, and achievement, and the outcomes of students as they progress beyond education into the workplace as well. I'm really excited to see how this theme develops over the years to come.


Alessandro Bilotta 31:19

Thank you very much, Mark. And Jonathan, thank you for your time and for sharing your wonderful expertise with us.


Mark Simpson 31:25

An absolute pleasure and always delighted to talk to you Alessandro. So thank you very much.


Jonathan Eaton 31:31

Thank you very much for the invitation, Alessandro. It's been tremendous to join the podcast. And we're really excited for the EdTech Summit later this year as well. Take care.


Alessandro Bilotta 31:40

If you want to hear more from Mark and Jonathan. Join us at the EdTech Summit, taking place online on 18th and 19th of November 2020. Don't forget to visit our website at to register for your free place. I'm Alessandro Bilotta, content lead of the EdTech Summit. Thank you for listening, and until next time,