All posts by Alex Pryce

About Alex Pryce

I manage Communications and Engagement for the digital outreach portal project. I am based in the Widening Access and Participation team at the University of Oxford.

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!).

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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.

Reflecting on Oxplore Live

One aspect of the Oxplore launch that was new for the University and for Oxplore was an interactive live stream for schools that we ran on Monday 18th September. We saw this as a way to reach schools across the country and involve them in our launch activities – and also as a way to trial a digital engagement model for working with schools on a more regular basis.

As with the Oxplore website, the content was key, and we chose to discuss our launch Big Question ‘Would you want to live forever’ with a panel of experts from different disciplines. We needed to ensure when our academic specialists signed up they knew what they were agreeing to… We wanted to be open to questions from young people watching which meant they had to up for tackling whatever came their way! Thankfully Professor Alison Woollard, Dr Jonathan Jong and Dr Cressida Ryan were up for the challenge.

We were keen to ensure we had a ‘chair’ who was as comfortable with academics as they were with a camera. Former Oxford student and science YouTuber Simon Clark  was willing to take a bit of time away from the last weeks of his PhD at the University of Exeter to help us out with this. We were very grateful since even with the heat of the studio lights and a live broadcast he was unflappable!

Broadcasting live from Oxford to schools was always a risk since we know from our school visits that the technology in schools varies greatly… They don’t all necessarily have the most up-to-date browsers, they might block certain websites and social media, and how exactly their networks and hardware are set up seems different in every school. To give us the best chance of success in reaching their classrooms we worked with Educational Media Services at the University’s IT Services to broadcast through livestream.com (avoiding blocked social media domains) from their basement studio (to ensure connectivity was as good as it could be from our end). Of course, there was still a risk out of our control that the school might not have the right plugin or a patchy wifi – which we could only really mitigate by giving a link to test connection with our joining instructions.

While we were briefing our panel members and running through the technical requirements and a dress rehearsal, we invited teachers to register through Eventbrite. This was helpful to us to get an idea of interest, but also so we could send teachers extra resources in advance – some materials for the students to complete while the stream was live, and other ideas of extension activities for teachers to extend the session or run a follow up activity another day.

Since this was our first event like this, we did have some enquiries about how it would work and how best to deliver it. Some schools were able to have students log on individually or in pairs in PC rooms, while others broadcast through a projector with everyone watching the screen. From our point of view, it does make this kind of activity hard to measure because it isn’t clear how many people we are reaching, but for schools it is good to know it can work both ways.

As with every event, we did have a little bit of anxiety about how it will be received, and the technical requirements did add another layer of complexity. We did need two members of the Oxplore team to monitor comments on the stream and social media – not only to choose questions to put to the panel, but to watch out for any abusive comments too. And, once we’d gone live it was over in a flash!

Our analysis shows that we had viewers in over 50 different towns and cities in the UK. We also had around 200 comments and questions from our viewers, as well as 478 viewers tuned in live. We’re pleased with these statistics for our first go at using a live broadcast to reach schools in this way! The whole process was a learning experience for our team and we hope to build on this success and run more streams like this in the coming months.

You can watch our broadcast again here.

Oxplore live stream team
Danielle and Alex from the Oxplore team with Simon, Alison, Jonathan and Cressida off air.

Oxplore is officially launched!

Oxplore has officially launched for all to see, use and share. Phew.

At one level, this launch marks the end of technical development which has pulled together a robust site which meets our vision for the Home of Big Questions and responds to user feedback. It also marks a point where we have delivered a substantial enough amount of content that we are sure our users can get lost on the site and dig deep into resources.

However, any good website is an organic thing. We’re already working on more content and our communications going forwards. Now that users can register we can’t wait to engage more with them.

A hard date, though, is a good time to reflect on a few facts and figures from our past 18-months!

Over the coming weeks the team are taking some down-time as well as reflecting on the success of the launch activities. (More on those another time).

Some bells and whistles

Throughout the summer, our technical development team have been working hard on the Oxplore site to add new features. These haven’t been released to the main site yet – we’re waiting until our national launch. We have been adding some new Big Questions to the live site over the past two months though – including Can money buy happiness? and Should under 18s be allowed to vote?

The first feature the developers worked on was a reworking of our homepage. In the current site the format was in block panels of 1 question, 6 questions, 1 question, 6 questions etc. Our focus groups showed that young people liked the principle of this design, but they wanted different ways to navigate too. They’ll soon be able to see new, trending or topical questions first as we have a way to pin questions to the top. They’ll also be able to navigate questions through themes (since as we’re nearing 35 questions, it can get a bit overwhelming). You can preview it in the short video below!

Under the hood, we’ve also developed user registration and a whole host of related features including commenting on Big Questions after voting, bookmarking resources you liked for later, controlling your contact and privacy options and navigating the homepage as a logged in user. We also needed to do a little set up for the live stream element of our national launch.

Plus, to allow us to make the Big Questions themselves more dynamic we’ve developed some new resource types like scrolling image galleries, pros and cons lists, and (better) ways to display images in existing resources like articles and lists.

And, finally, we’ve also been addressing bugs with how the site performs on different devices and enhancing the analytics we can gather to help us monitor the effectiveness of the portal.

It has certainly been a packed summer for the developers… It is exciting to see the site growing in this way, and to know that we have been building functionality that has been rated highly by the users we spoke to in our pilot (particularly our May/June pilot which fed into what we prioritised and how they work).

The last development sprint ends tomorrow – on schedule! Phew.

Learning to Oxplore…

Danielle Lloyd, who is with the Oxplore team on a five-month placement, reflects on working in the Oxplore team.

I joined the team in June as a trainee on the Ambitious Futures Graduate scheme. The scheme aims to provide graduates with ‘diverse and challenging opportunities’ – and Oxplore has definitely done this for me! Every day with the team is different from the last, here’s a taster of the things I’ve been up to…

Researching the weird and wonderful… from the history of football and the inner workings of the brain to the biology of race and robots taking over peoples’ jobs, there’s no shortage of fascinating content creation tasks here at Oxplore. I was also able to build my own Big Question from scratch, which provided an incredible opportunity to see a mini-project through from idea to finished product.

Is it OK to judge other people? Big Question on Oxplore

Creating over 200 avatars… plus infographics and social media images using open source image editor software, GIMP. I’ve never had much of an opportunity to use design software before, but I’ve found GIMP surprisingly easy to pick up and use. It’s been great for creating fun infographics for upcoming questions, something we wanted to do to make ‘big data’ accessible for our young target audience.

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Designing an engaging workshop… for our upcoming national launch event. I’ve always enjoyed planning activities for young people, you can really let your imagination run wild! We’ve been creating a workshop based upon research from the Oxford Martin School, and it’s great to be able to share real academic research with young people in a format they can easily understand and engage with.

Chasing Oxford students… for reading recommendations. During school visits earlier in the year, some older students expressed an interest in reading materials that took them beyond the site. To address this, I reached out to a long list of Oxford undergraduate students who had previously expressed an interest in the University’s widening participation work. As part of this, they were asked to suggest which materials (books, podcasts, videos and articles) inspired them to choose their university subjects. We’ve had some fantastic responses, highlights include The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten by Julian Baggini and Follow Your Gut by Rob Knight with Brendan Buhler. Watch out for their arrival on the site soon!

So, it’s been a busy couple of months juggling content writing and marketing activities with work on other outreach projects like the UNIQ summer schools and a Lauriston Lights summer camp, but managing this complex and diverse workload is a skill I will take with me to all my future roles – whatever they may be!

 

Developing an Oxplore toolkit

This week we met with access/school liaison officers from Oxford’s colleges and faculties to discuss how Oxplore can underpin their face-to-face work in the next academic year. It was one of the starkest findings from our pilot study that areas with an element of face-to-face interaction with young people spent much longer on the site and had higher numbers of page views. Common sense always suggested this would be the case, but the difference was very noticeable. So, with thousands of contact hours across the University’s various access programmes each year, we feel that equipping the wider community with the tools to disseminate Oxplore could make a big difference!

The good news is that those who attended our workshop were keen to include Oxplore as part of their work. From our discussions, it is clear that we do need to think about how ‘Big Questions’ and the Oxplore approach can work within existing structures which often focus on introductions to university. Beyond the colleges, we need to consider how faculties with their specific subject knowledge can build on the ideas while retaining the subject specificity that is important to them. There were also suggestions as to how we can link our activities with wider concerns such as helping older students to not just have ideas, but to structure their arguments well.

We want to make resources available in a format that works ‘out of the box’, we also want to provide the tools without being too prescriptive or limiting. One of the colleges (Mansfield) has already been using some of the workshop tasks we devised for groups of 25-30 with groups of 60-90. As outreach practitioners, they are flexible and creative! If we can do a bit of groundwork, our colleagues working in outreach have the skills to make them work.

And, to draw on those skills, we challenged the group to come up with the start of workshop ideas we could build on – so we have 3-4 workable draft activities already!

 

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