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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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).