The 2016 Times Higher Education (THE) Awards on 24 November 2016 saw the sector come together to recognise innovation from institutions across the UK, showcasing the best of higher education.
Technology has come to play a pivotal role in virtually every area of education, and we were delighted to see a very high standard of submission once again for the Jisc sponsored outstanding digital innovation in teaching or research category.
The Jisc award
This award recognises the innovative use of digital technology to improve an institution’s teaching, learning or research activity. As judges, we were seeking evidence of what institutions had been able to achieve through the use of digital technology that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible.
We were also looking for evidence of how the adoption of new digital approaches or infrastructure has led to innovation in research, or modernised and enhanced the student experience, and whether an innovation could be scaled within the institution or across the sector.
This year's winners
What lessons can we learn from games like Minecraft that would help geology students to prepare for their first field trip? How can we make field trips accessible to those who would not otherwise be able to take part?
These were the challenges tackled by the Virtual Landscapes project team, an inter-disciplinary science technology engineering arts and mathematics collaboration between the University of Leeds and Leeds College of Art. We chose this team, and their groundbreaking solution to scoping the environment through virtual reality, as this year’s winners.
How does Virtual Landscape work?
The Virtual Landscape tool gives students the ability to navigate a virtual landscape from a ‘first person’ perspective that will be familiar to video gamers everywhere. The worlds they explore are open ended, and they are free to explore whilst learning how to collect, plot and interpret geological data.
The game can be accessed from anywhere that the learner has an Internet connection, meaning that students can practice for their field trips outside of the classroom environment, and also facilitating distance learning.
The tool was well received by students and staff, with 70% of students reporting that it had increased their confidence for the field trip experience, and staff noting that they had seen a significant reduction in methodological errors once students were in the field.
The team has published and presented widely on this work, and seen significant interest in the Virtual Landscape tool from earth science departments at other institutions. They are also exploring transferability to other disciplines such as civil engineering.
A shortlist of serious calibre
We want to also pay tribute to the excellent work of all the shortlisted institutions; work that has already touched the lives of tens of thousands of learners in over 150 countries worldwide:
Innovative technology-enhanced learning
Dr Shah-Jalal Sarker from the Barts Cancer Institute at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) developed innovative technology enhanced learning techniques for on-campus and distance learning students. These include a non-mathematical approach to teaching statistics, focusing on concepts rather than formulae.
Dr Sarker has also explored using the ubiquitous Microsoft Excel as a teaching tool in place of specialist software, with statistical formulae ‘hidden’ behind the façade of Excel.
Forensic science MOOC
The Identifying the Dead massive open online course (MOOC) from the University of Dundee pioneered a narrative approach to learning forensic science techniques, with participants becoming part of the investigative team.
Using the FutureLearn platform, the Dundee team brought learners together with experts through real-time commentary and online question and answer sessions, working together to identify a corpse. The final identity of the deceased was revealed in a digital novella by bestselling crime writer Val McDermid.
Remote access to lab equipment
The Photovoltaic Remote Laboratory at Loughborough University gives distance learners remote access to lab equipment to develop their experiential knowledge around solar technologies - 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The Loughborough team has built custom software and hardware that makes it possible for learners to undertake complex experiments over the internet. Students can simulate different lighting conditions by controlling light source levels from 36 light emitting diodes (LEDs), adjusting the temperature of the lab’s photovoltaic solar panels and switching between different panels.
Introductory chemistry MOOC
The University of Manchester teamed up with MOOC provider Coursera to offer an Introduction to Physical Chemistry course, with the aim of transforming online science teaching using digital technology.
In addition to typical MOOC components such as videos, forums and quizzes, the course added assessment based on virtual laboratory simulations.
The virtual labs replicated the hands-on sessions that on-campus students would undertake, including advanced topics such as quantum chemistry.
Economics multimedia assignment
First year economics students at University College London have been taking the First Year Challenge as part of an ambitious effort to give economics teaching a solid real-world grounding whilst simultaneously helping members of the study cohort to bond.
Learners are given a global positioning system (GPS) location, a meeting time, and a task. They then have to form a group and attempt to connect their location with an e-book which will be their course text, creating a video or podcast about this connection.