“You don’t need a degree in internet technology to use it”
It might be strange, it might seem new-fangled, but many Sussex academics are discovering new tools and techniques to enliven their teaching.
Here the three winners of the Transformative Technology category of the 2019 Education Awards describe what they are doing to enhance the learning experience for their students.
A simple software solution to break down barriers
Few students have the courage to raise their hand in a packed lecture theatre and admit they don’t understand something.
The solution, as biochemistry lecturer Dr Joanna Richardson has discovered, is to use a simple piece of software that allows her students to confess to their confusion anonymously.
She started using Poll Everywhere initially as a tool for setting multiple choice quizzes for her attendees, and then realised that she could “flip it” so that the students could ask her open-ended questions instead.
“I sometimes have 250 students in my lectures, and my concern was that if someone got lost around lecture two or three, then by lecture ten they would have given up,” she says. “I was looking for ways of making the lectures more interactive.”
Because the technology allowed others to up-vote questions, she was able to identify the areas that several students found difficult and to focus on them.
The approach had additional benefits too.
“I found that, after a while, people felt bold enough to raise their hands and ask questions. So it broke down those barriers and has encouraged more discussion.”
Joanna has previously been given a student-led teaching award and was thrilled to receive one of this year’s Education Awards in the Transformative Technology category, although she points out that what she does is “not that sophisticated”.
“Maybe that’s why it’s effective,” she adds. “You can just strap it on to what you have. You don’t need a degree in internet technology to use it.”
Joanna, who came to Sussex three years ago as a teaching fellow, realised soon into her academic career that she found teaching the most rewarding aspect of her work.
“I live for the student feedback. If you get a nice comment then it makes your day. But it’s particularly rewarding when it comes from the students who struggled or who didn’t have much confidence. You can see you how you have helped someone to realise their potential. I do really like working with students. They make me optimistic about the future.”
The instant responses that spark debate
Senior Law lecturer Dr Femi Amao knew it would be a challenge to teach corporate law to his students. “Some aspects are quite dry, quite technical. I didn’t want them to get bored and lose interest.”
The answer, he found, was to use Poll Everywhere to pose questions during his seminars and lectures and to receive instant responses that could then spark debate.
“I have always looked for ways to get students engaged in a class setting, and of making it much more interesting for them,” he says. “In the past I used to draft questions beforehand that I put into the lecture. But then I came across Poll Everywhere, and I think it’s brilliant. If you encourage the students to talk, they are more able to concentrate.”
The students engage through downloading the app onto their phones, or accessing the site through their laptop’s browser in the lecture, or by sending text messages.
“I use it at the beginning of the lecture to try to revise what I have done in the past, or to introduce a new topic to get them enthused, or to wrap up at the end," says Femi, who joined Sussex in 2016 after changing his career path 16 years ago. He was formerly a barrister with a prominent law firm in Nigeria that represented the government and multinational companies.
“I’d gone into the profession because I’d wanted to contribute to society through the practice of law,” he says. “But because of the high levels of corruption in Nigeria, it was more complicated that I thought.
“I could see what was going on behind the cases. I knew I couldn’t continue. I thought if I can’t be part of the solution to the problem, I shouldn’t be part of the problem. I didn’t want to be dragged into things.”
Now, through combining teaching and research at Sussex, he feels he is finally making the contribution to society that he had hoped to do from the start.
“I enjoy teaching students, and I enjoy the research. I was lucky enough to get funded within my first year of being here.”
One of his major research interests is in African Union Law. “I am looking at ways in which laws at the continental level – like EU law – can be used to shift things at the state level. It may not be directly changing things in Nigeria, but it could make a difference in the long run.”
Bringing land law to life
Law lecturer Dr Verona Ni Drisceoil has received many awards and accolades for her innovative and engaging teaching style.
In 2018 she was a finalist in a national Law Teacher of the Year competition, which recognised her desire “to inspire and to create an environment where students can engage, challenge, critique and question”.
In 2016 she was awarded a £5000 Innovation in Teaching Award by the University, which she used to help to fund a series of ten bespoke videos about land law to help her students engage with what she says is a “dense and technical” area of study.
It’s these videos, collectively known as The Virtual Land Law Field Trip Project, which garnered nominations in this University’s 2019 Education Awards and caught the eye of the judges.
The videos, made with the help of media studies Masters students, illustrated a range of local community issues - such as homelessness and the housing crisis - and have been shown during lectures to stimulate discussion and debate.
“Making the videos for the module has been challenging and hugely time consuming but also deeply rewarding,” says Verona. “I was able to develop collaborative links across campus and beyond, to improve my own technology skills and also to have the space within which to think critically about my role as teacher and facilitator.
“The initial aim was to offer students a virtual and visual platform within which they could be transported out of the confines of the lecture hall and seminar room space to connect with and see the operation and impact of land law in practice in the local community.
“If I had the resource, next time I would like to get the law students involved in making the videos as it demonstrated how much more effective this approach could be in their learning.”