A BETTer day at work

Last week, part of the Oxplore team took some time away from the office to attend BETT at ExCel London. This multi-day expo brought together established companies and new educational technology start-ups for a series of talks, workshops and demos. As a relatively new project ourselves, we were keen to see the latest innovations and how others are using new technology to inform and inspire young people.

For both of us, it was our first visit to BETT and we were overwhelmed by the size of the exhibition area and the diversity of products and approaches on show. Unsurprisingly, Microsoft and Google had large stands, but there were a number of smaller gems including edtech start-ups from across the globe in various government-sponsored stands or tucked away at the corners!

In the exhibition area, we both noted the prevalence of STEM approaches (and in particular anything with a coding element, 3D printing or simple robotics). There were comparatively few Arts and Humanities innovations, except for some language learning apps and VR for experiencing historical times and places. We also didn’t find anything quite like Oxplore. Much of the focus was on encouraging creativity or monitoring progress, rather than stimulating critical thinking (so we aren’t out of the job just yet).

We attended several talks, of which the most interesting and relevant to Oxplore were one from Simon Nelson looking at the future of FutureLearn and the wider digital education offering for the HE sector, and how American teacher Steve Auslander uses the Skype in the Classroom interface to connect his class with experts and other classrooms across the globe.

 

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Going Above and Beyond in Wales

In December, the Oxplore team were invited to attend the Seren Network’s conference ‘Above and Beyond’. Seren is a network of regional hubs designed to support Wales’ brightest sixth formers achieve their academic potential, and the conference brought over 1000 of them to Newtown in Mid-Wales.

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Given the sheer number of students, we invited current Oxford students, Joseff and Tamsin, along to lend a hand in delivering workshops and demonstrating the site

We delivered workshops with over 200 Year 12s, and enjoyed seeing how they responded to the tasks we set for them (creating, discussing and presenting their ideas for Big Questions). Being put on the spot – especially when you’ve been travelling in a coach since 6am – can be daunting! Their ideas were creative and their responses astute and considered. Joseff and Tamsin roamed the workshop rooms to challenge their assumptions, and at the end of the sessions the Welsh students submitted their own Questions to us to bring back to Oxford. We put them – all 275 of them – to the Director of Undergraduate Admissions who carefully considered them before choosing 4 to receive prizes from us….

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Bringing the Oxplore concept from Oxford to Wales allows us to spend some time away from our desk and the ongoing task of developing new content and live streams. It also allows us to meet some of the young people we want to encourage to use the site. In our development, feedback was crucial, and even now we’re keen to test the ongoing appeal of the site. On this occasion, 95.2% of those surveyed said they would use oxplore.org after the session – and a modest (well, it was Christmas) increase in pageviews and visit duration from Welsh users bears this through into site usage.

The Oxplore Big Question Challenge!

Want to share your research, inspire young people and have the chance to win a £50 Amazon voucher?

We’re looking for your idea for an engaging Big Question designed to fascinate 11-18 year olds, plus a resource (article, podcast, video, animation, multiple choice quiz, list-style article or image gallery) that you would be keen to create with Oxplore in Trinity Term 2018.

We welcome entries from current DPhil students and early career researchers from any discipline.

To enter, complete our entry form.

Entries must be received by Sunday 11 February 2018

What is Oxplore?

Oxplore is University of Oxford’s digital outreach portal. As the ‘Home of Big Questions’ it aims to engage those from 11 to 18 years old with debates and ideas that go beyond what is covered in the classroom. www.oxplore.org

Oxplore has been built and created by the University of Oxford for young people as part of our commitment to reaching the best students from every kind of background. The project is coordinated by the University’s Widening Access and Participation team which delivers outreach work with young people across the UK as part of Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach.

Our website includes Big Questions ranging from ‘Does a god exist?’ to ‘Is a robot a person?’. Each of these includes tackles complex ideas across a wide range of subjects and draws on the latest research undertaken at Oxford.

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What is the Oxplore Big Question Challenge?

We’re keen to inspire young people with the latest research happening at Oxford. Part of this means looking for ways to feature interesting approaches to big ideas on our website from our current DPhil students and early career researchers working in a range of disciplines.

This is where you come in! The best idea will not only win you £50 in Amazon vouchers but the opportunity to see it produced and included on the Oxplore site.

You’ll need to suggest a Big Question that can fascinate 11-18 year olds, and one learning resource that could accompany it. The question itself will need to be broad enough to accommodate different arguments and disciplines (you can see examples at www.oxplore.org).

The accompanying learning resource can be more specific to your research expertise but should still be creative and engaging. It could take the form of an article, podcast, video, animation, multiple choice quiz, list-style article or image gallery.

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How can I enter?

To enter, complete our entry form.

In the first instance, we will be simply asking you to propose your ideas rather than actually send across a finished resource.

How is this judged and when would I find out if I’ve been successful?

Your submission will be judged by a panel of university staff who work in Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach and regularly work with young people. The panel will also include an Access Fellow and the final decision will lie with the Senior Head of Outreach.

The panel will be looking for entries that not only showcase interesting and innovative research and perspectives but that have considered the intended audience and the fit with Oxplore’s existing content types and styles.

Shortlisted entries will be contacted in early March 2018 and will have their entries taken forward in discussion with the Oxplore team and with input from our registered users.

So what makes an engaging Big Question?

An Oxplore ‘Big Question’ is one that can bring in a wide range of disciplines, debates and ideas. It will likely cover areas that are not traditionally covered in the classroom and UK National Curriculum.

An engaging question will not be possible to solve with just one answer. It won’t have a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. Instead, it will be open to a range of diverse and global perspectives.

It may touch upon an area that thinkers in many disciplines have been debating for years and that still attracts interest today. In this sense, it is continually topical.

An effective big question suggestion will also try to tap into what young people find interesting. From our work with young people, we have found that they are particularly intrigued by ‘the weird and the wonderful’. Topics such as time travel and aliens have attracted interest suggesting they are intrigued by some of the world’s big mysteries and things which test human understanding.

Additionally, some of our most viewed big questions on the site include consideration of gun control and the death penalty indicating the appeal of morbidly curious topics. Just think about the popularity of the Horrible Histories series for example…

Lastly, show that young people are fascinated by questions linked to power and truth such as consideration of whether we can live without laws and whether history books are trustworthy. They also engage well with ideas about the future such as immortality, climate change and more. This is not altogether surprising considering how they are frequently asked to consider what they want to do in their lives.

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I have a question…

Feel free to email oxplore@admin.ox.ac.uk if you have any queries.

In the meantime, good luck and we very much look forward to reading about your ideas!

Happy Holidays from Oxplore

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As the Oxplore team wind down for 2017, we’ve been reflecting collectively on the past year and everything we have achieved.

This time last year we were about to launch a holding site and were beginning to collate content and bring together our brand assets.

In February, we launched our beta site complete with 15 Big Questions, and took it to the North East to seek user feedback in our first pilot. We tweaked the site content based on that feedback, launched another batch of Big Questions, and went out again to our users in the East Midlands and Wales in May and June for their thoughts on technical features and user experience.

Over the summer, we developed the new features based on their feedback, developed even more Big Questions, and planned for our launch programme to begin in the fresh school year in September.

And, since then, we’ve been working on our next batch of content, building partnerships across the University, launching a programme of live stream events, working with the Seren Network and The Brilliant Club for a large student event in Wales, and launched the various strands of our digital and traditional marketing.

So, in the last year we’ve gone from 0 site users to over 25,000 site users. We’ve gone from 0 Big Questions to 36 Big Questions. Most importantly, we’ve gone from a concept to a dynamic and multi-faceted project.

2017 has certainly been pretty thrilling. We’re all hoping 2018 is just as exciting.

Two, three, four heads are better than one

Here at Oxplore we’re always looking to collaborate with academics across the University since it’s their innovative research and insights that enhance the credibility and richness of our resources.

To date, we have generally asked academics to support Big Questions by contributing to articles and recording podcasts. And this has often been in collaboration with our own team (i.e. we speak to academics over the phone and collate the discussion into a written piece) to streamline the workload and time required of busy academic staff. We also have a panel of early career researchers who academically review the materials on the site and create new resources for us.

New stage, new ways

This model has worked really well. However, now that we have launched nationally and are in a new phase of planning, we’re exploring different ways of working with academics. This includes consulting with key academics to look over new resource plans to gain their insights as to how these could be extended further and how to include lesser-known topics. Not only do we benefit from the fresh perspectives academics offer, but this process also provides another layer of quality assurance for upcoming materials.

We’ve also started to work with academics and create resource plans together from scratch. For example, we are working closely with Dr Priya Atwal on our upcoming Big Question, ‘Do we need a royal family?’ This area lies within her research expertise on the royal family and empire, and so it’s been really valuable to gain her ideas and creative energy in designing this content.

Another way in which we are collaborating with academics is by working with existing interdisciplinary projects based at the University – sharing their materials and helping to create greater awareness of their work among our target audience. For example, we have teamed up with Professor Katrin Kohl who works on the AHRC-funded Creative Multilingualism project to develop our upcoming question: ‘Would it be better if we all spoke the same language?’

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Professor Kohl has helped shape and review our resource plans for this question, she has contributed to the main article and she has agreed to take part in our live stream event in February which will be centred on these materials. We’re also excited to be including some of the Creative Multilingualism audio recordings and videos on Oxplore. Plus, the Creative Multilingualism team are keen to use the finished resource in their work with schools, which will not only enhance awareness of both our projects but also Oxford’s outreach activities in general.

Reaching out to the Museums    

Since the start of Oxplore, we’ve been keen to work together with the University museums, gardens and libraries to share some of their beautiful collections and highlight their interesting projects. Much to our delight, we’ve been able to draw upon the collections for some of our homepage images. See some examples below:

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Additionally, when we were planning a Big Question about sexuality (‘Does it matter who you love?), we knew instantly that we wanted to try and involve the superb ‘Out in Oxford’ project which brings together items from the University collections that focus on LGBTQ+ experience. With permission from museum staff, we created two shortened trails for the Oxplore site using the original images and descriptions as provided by University staff and students. This served as a meaningful way to bring in a historical, anthropological and global perspective to the exploration of this topic.

The journey continues…

We’re always looking for new ways to include and work with academic staff. Next year we’re planning to run a competition whereby we invite early career researchers to share their research in an engaging way with our young target audience. If you’re an academic or work with academics and have a suggestion for how you would like to contribute to Oxplore, please do get in touch as it would be great to hear from you.

 

Looking back (and forward)

Danielle Lloyd, has been with the Oxplore team on a five-month Ambitious Futures placement. As she leaves for her next challenge, she reflects on working with Oxplore and across Widening Access & Participation at Oxford.

My placement with the Oxplore team is (sadly) coming to an end. It’s been an exciting time to be involved in such an innovative and fast moving project, and I’ve had the opportunity to learn lots about widening access and participation along the way. I’ve collected together a few examples of practices I think are important in outreach work…

Tracking and evaluation

Within the Widening Access and Participation team and across the collegiate university, there is an abundance of excellent outreach work taking place. Evaluating these activities has a range of benefits, including informing future outreach practice, providing evidence for continual investment in outreach, ensuring that activities are engaging and meeting the needs of their target audience, and sharing best practice (both within and outside of the institution).

The breadth and variety of practice at Oxford provides opportunity to track and evaluate many types of outreach, but this can also present challenges. How do we evaluate consistently across the university in a way that is effective and time-efficient? A new evaluation framework seeks to address some of these challenges by offering a flexible framework (including suggested survey questions and evaluation format) that can be used by all outreach practitioners. This will also integrate with HEAT (the Higher Education Access Tracker) which is a great tool for a joined up evaluation technique, not just within the university but across all partner institutions.

My experience so far is that whilst evaluation can be challenging and time-consuming, its benefits for effective outreach outweigh the costs.

Collaborative working

Following on from the idea of sharing best practice through evaluation, I have also experienced the importance of sharing resources, knowledge and experience in outreach work. For example, the Oxplore team has been creating (learning) materials (e.g. engaging workshop plans, colourful flyers and lots of branded goodies) to share with college and departmental outreach officers. Working with the wider outreach community in this way gives us an avenue to share Oxplore with a wide range of young people, but also gives outreach officers a new way to share academic research through an engaging Big Questions workshop.

Within Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach, a recent move to a bigger office where the majority of teams are now sitting together increases the potential for collaborative working between outreach, recruitment and communications teams. It can be small things, like sharing a list of annual awareness days for social media marketing, but also bigger things like sending 1000s of flyers to schools and UCAS fairs across the country!

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Student involvement

During my time at Oxford, every outreach project I have worked on has included some kind of involvement from student ambassadors, which has a hugely important impact. Students can offer a perspective on Oxford that many staff can’t, and are much more likely to be someone that young people can relate to. At the UNIQ Summer Schools, the Lauriston Lights camp and our own launch day, I saw the ambassadors build a rapport with the participants which engaged and welcomed them in a situation that had the potential to be very intimidating.

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The Oxplore team with student ambassadors Amy, Alastair, Serena and Rebecca

This is just a small sample of the lessons I’ve learnt with Oxplore, and across Widening Access and Participation. I intend to take this all with me to my next role in a FE college (and beyond!).

Podcast ponderings

Rebecca Costello from the Oxplore team reflects on the use of audio content on Oxplore and the production process the team undertake.

One of the many things that makes Oxplore so innovative is our purpose-made audio content. Podcasts are commonly used as vehicles to impart engaging, accessible information to wide-reaching audiences, serving as a broad gateway into a topic, or offering the chance to delve that little bit deeper into a specific area.

In developing content for Oxplore, we were excited about harnessing the potential of this creative medium, and our podcasts offer a bespoke, focused perspective on many of our Big Questions. Often recorded in academics’ own offices, these resources can lift the lid on the wealth of cutting-edge research being carried out across the University of Oxford, providing fresh, contemporary perspectives and academic expertise.

Most recently, we’ve worked with Dr Alpa Parmar and Dr Julia Viebach from the Centre for Criminology; Dr Stephen Harris from Plant Sciences; Dr Ian Thompson, from the Department of Education, as well as loads more university staff and students. It is great to include some students’ perspectives as they aren’t already represented in the University’s extensive podcast library, and we feel it makes the resources appealing to young people too.

Podcasts work very well on Oxplore because they can break up text resources, and appeal to students who prefer to learn aurally or visually. Real voices also bring the subject to life; hearing the speakers’ tone, intonation and vocal inflection can bring dynamism to the recording and convey a sense of passion that may be lost in a written resource.

We choose our contributors based on the end goal of the podcast. If we are looking for specific and detailed knowledge, such as someone to speak about legal truth in the courtroom, then we search for an appropriate expert and invite them to contribute. However, if the recording requires a simple word or sentence from a selection of staff and students, such as our Chat up lines from across the world resource then we issue a wider general invitation for people to share their insights.

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A podcast in the Oxplore Big Question ‘Is it OK to judge other people?’

All of our recordings are created, edited and added to the website by the Oxplore team. Once an academic has agreed to be part of a podcast, we arrange to meet them in a convenient place, and ask them to complete a permission form giving us the go-ahead to use their content under a Creative Commons license. We use a portable Roland R-26 recorder to capture their thoughts and then edit the audio using Audacity when we’re back in the office. Audacity is a free editing programme that allows users to trim, fade, and apply effects to audio material and IT Services here at Oxford run training courses that the team have made the most of!

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Editing an Oxplore podcast in Audacity

One of the important things for us to keep in mind when creating podcasts is their length; they need to be long enough to offer a comprehensive perspective on the topic, deep enough to offer something new, but short enough to capture the attention of busy school students. While we do try to re-use existing University content wherever possible, often recorded lectures or academic papers are simply too complex and too long. We aim therefore to keep Oxplore podcasts roughly between 3 and 5 minutes long, though of course we wouldn’t delete anything that is crucial to the trajectory of the narrative.

Once we’ve edited the audio down so that it’s smooth and polished, we make any accompanying images either using a slide show, or by uploading an Oxplore background directly to YouTube with the accompanying MP3 file via Tunes to Tube. Tunes to Tube is a website that facilitates the quick and simple uploading of MP3 files to YouTube, allowing images to be uploaded with the audio in one go – and we’ve found it a very useful resource.

There are many ways to include audio on websites, but given our bespoke CMS, YouTube is the simplest option for us. It also gives the added bonus of our content being discoverable on the second largest search engine – a site we know young people love using. It also gives us the benefit of including closed captions – which not only help those with hearing difficulties but also those who aren’t using sound while browsing the site. We check captions for accuracy – and this is especially important when creating multilingual resources – as we want to give everyone access to the same quality experience when using the Oxplore website.

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Set adrift from the Big Questions they are a part of on the Oxplore, our podcast playlist on YouTube is a bit of a quirky mix! We really enjoy this variety in our work though, and we’re always developing new recordings so do keep an eye on the site or subscribe to our YouTube channel to hear our next creations.