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Using the UCL Baseline in peer dialogue to improve your online modules

The Department of Information Studies (DIS) integrated the UCL Connected Learning Baseline checklist into established peer obvservation processes to help improve their online teaching.

Staff member writing

6 July 2020

Dr Karen Stepanyan, Dr Daniel Boswell and Dr Jenny Bunn from the Department of Information Studies (DIS) describe how they set about improving the design of their online modules by embedding the UCL Connected Learning Baseline into ongoing module improvement and personal development processes, using the UCL Arena Peer Dialogue Framework.


Creating a high quality, connected learning experience

The UCL Connected Learning Baseline (formerly the E-Learning Baseline) is a helpful and comprehensive guide for staff on how best to structure and design online learning resources and activities in Moodle.

The Baseline's ten sections cover the essentials of how to structure and present a course so that it’s easy to navigate, how to help students get the most out of it and how to manage communications, along with a digestible take on your legal obligations. It’s intended as a practical tool; a set of ‘good practice’ standards that ensures consistent usability, availability and quality of online teaching and learning materials. 

The Baseline Checklist – a simple form – lets you review your progress against the standards and supports you with improving your module delivery on Moodle by identifying areas where your Moodle course could use further work. 

UCL's Peer Dialogue Framework 

UCL Arena Peer Dialogue provides a framework for teaching staff to develop their teaching and learning practice by focusing on a range of dimensions of their practice, such as classroom teaching, feedback on assessment or development of resources.

The Department of Information Studies (DIS) employs Pair-Based Teaching Observation as a foundation for starting such dialogue.  

What is pair-based teaching observation? 

In pair-based teaching observation, you: 

  • identify with a colleague one or more aspects of your face-to-face teaching, digital education activities or feedback to students, which you would like feedback on. You are encouraged to select a new partner for the Peer Dialogue each academic year, so that you can draw on and contribute to the expertise of diverse colleagues;
  • plan times to observe each other’s teaching, digital education activities or feedback;
  • spend time on preparation before the observation. It will be very helpful if you understand the context of each other’s teaching and the aim and content of particular session, activity or assessment;
  • when observing, make notes on what you will feed back to your colleague and on what you can apply to your own teaching/course design/feedback practice;
  • engage in a constructive follow-up discussion, exploring how your practice can be mutually enhanced;
  • write a brief joint report (50-150 words) summarising any changes you plan following the Peer Dialogue, focusing particularly on suggestions of benefit to others in the department.

See the UCL Arena Peer Dialogue Framework for more information. 

Two years ago, DIS decided to incorporate the UCL Connected Learning Baseline check (then known as the e-Learning Baseline check) into the process of Pair-Based Teaching Observation by including its minimum expectations on the form completed between the observer and observee. 

As part of the teaching observation, the observer is invited to explore the module’s Moodle course, and, with the observee, check how closely it is aligned with the UCL Connected Learning Baseline.

The peer-observation form includes a checklist that is completed as a result of the discussion. The completed form is used by the observee to take steps for improving the existing e-learning environment. 

Module improvement is a collaborative effort 

The idea of incorporating the Baseline check into the form emerged as a result of a discussion between the e-learning champions, academics and professional services team that revolved around good practice in maintaining Moodle spaces.  

It was clear that assigning the tasks of checking the alignment of Moodle spaces could not be delegated to a single member of staff. Firstly, this would lead to a top down approach that is pushed on individual module leaders and may be perceived as judgmental or intrusive, rather than supportive or collaborative. Secondly, finding a member of staff who would be in a position to devote the needed time to explore the multitude of Moodle sites that exist in the department would be virtually impossible. It was also unclear whether the feedback from a single member of staff could be perceived as devoid of bias. Instead, organising the Baseline check as part of a peer dialogue would foster exchange of ideas and good practice within an already established collegiate environment. 

The proposal was led by the e-learning champions in the department. Introducing a new form for peer observation was discussed at one of the staff meetings and welcomed by colleagues. 

As a result, the staff handbook has been updated to include a new form and instructions for using it. The form has now been in use for two years. 

Timeline and resources

Introducing new processes in the department requires input from all members of staff; adding the Connected Learning Baseline check into the process of peer observation requires time from both observee and observer. The observee has to enrol the observer into the Moodle course prior to the observation. The discussion that takes place after the observation requires additional time to accommodate the exchange of ideas and maintenance of the teaching and learning spaces on Moodle. 

It is certainly important to involve members of staff in discussions and decisions around introducing new processes, especially given that the process requires additional time resource. DIS decided to add the proposal for discussion at one of the departmental meetings. These take place several times a year. Adding the item onto the agenda for the meeting in Spring, might be a good opportunity for marking decisions and setting up the environment for the process to be introduced over the Summer, and before the start of the new academic year. 

There was an obvious need to combine the peer observation form with the Baseline checklist. We also spent time creating a wiki page to provide more extensive  documentation to complement the simplified summary on the printable Checklist form.  

Time is also required to maintain and update the printable form. For example, with the development of the new UCL Connected Learning Baseline, the form may become bigger. There is a balance to be struck between keeping the form to a manageable size and providing explanatory text on the baseline criteria to facilitate discussion between observer and observe. 

Reflections

A formal evaluation has not been carried out, but informal feedback suggests that the change has been welcomed by members of staff. It is true however, that the benefits to be accrued are dependent on individuals’ willingness to engage in a peer dialogue. If the process is perceived as a form-filling exercise, rather than an opportunity to discuss further improvements or sharing good practice, there is little if any use in using the form.   

It is evident that not all Moodle spaces are structured and maintained in line with the Baseline. Departments across UCL are aware and are developing strategies of improving their digital learning spaces in Moodle. Hiring Learning Technologists to help members of staff to improve the their learning environments may be a quick solution, but it will certainly be less collegial and less focused on the personal and professional growth that may result from an honest, open dialogue between two colleagues. 

Having a discussion with a colleague on the baseline checklist was very useful and led to some small but significant changes in the design of the Moodle pages of my modules. A fresh pair of eyes can more easily identify problems with the presentation of the online learning material and suggest simple ways to improve them. It is quick, efficient and definitely very helpful! - Dr. Antonis Bikakis,
Associate Professor, UCL Department of Information Studies

Next steps

We have recently updated the Baseline checklist, to include the new UCL Connected Learning Baseline. We have updated the Staff handbook with the new form and intend to continue using the approach. 

Top tips for using a Peer Dialogue approach to improving your online module(s)

  1. Gauge and ensure cross-departmental buy-in from staff to ensure effective trials of the peer dialogue approach 

  1. Build understanding of difference between minimum standards and optimum recommendations in the Connected Learning Baseline 

  1. Talk to professional services staff; additional management of access to Moodle pages is required for peer dialogue, and it helps if this coordinated with administration. 

  1. Consider how this sits alongside departmental digital training and support from your Connected Learning Leads and Faculty Education Teams.