The Hyflex Teaching Model

In response to the global pandemic, we have found ourselves faced with unprecedented challenges and a need to rapidly adapt our teaching delivery to accommodate students working remotely. Currently, we are aiming to return to a ‘business as usual’ model but in reality, there may be circumstances where some students are still unable to be present in person (PiP). Our international students are one particularly vulnerable group facing a continuous level of uncertainty regarding travel opportunities and restrictions. With this in mind, colleagues at INTO Newcastle University devised a delivery approach encompassing the Hyflex Model.

What is the Hyflex Model?

“The hybrid flexible, or HyFlex, course format is an instructional approach that combines face-to-face (F2F) and online learning. Each class session and learning activity is offered in-person, synchronously online, and asynchronously online” (EDUCAUSE, 2020). The main aim is that no student is disadvantaged, no matter which format they select. INTO Newcastle’s take on this approach was to connect PiP students with online peers through use of a camera, microphone, tripod and a hosting site such as Zoom or Teams. Asynchronous delivery is not a part of this approach. Session plans, pace of delivery and learning outcomes had to be adjusted because of the changed learning environment. A sample of FMS staff were able to experience this approach in real time at a training session delivered by INTO Newcastle’s Pre-Sessional Programme Manager, Darran Shaw. They gave the following reflections:

Overall

“While in no way perfect, this approach is something worth experimenting with”.

“The relatively cheap equipment was functional and would allow 3-way engagement”. 

Audio-related 

“I chose to join the ‘online’ part of the class via the Zoom meeting link on my phone. This was quick and easy to join, though we would possibly need to think about which accounts students have on their phones – whether they could join with their personal or university accounts. Once in the meeting I had minimal problems with sound or hearing the classroom participants. I can imagine this being difficult if the quality dropped though – even small cut-outs in the signal or sound pickup can make understanding difficult. This is even more of a concern for students joining who have poorer internet access, or who do not have English as a first language”. 

“To enhance the experience, I felt that the quality of the audio was the most important.  The levels of concentration required to filter out background noise and focus on the primary speaker is very tiring and difficult (this was already experienced with recorded lectures prior to COVID and even more diverse with academic recording or conducting zoom classes from their own PC over the last 18 months).  For those in the room, sound from all participants was equal and what we would expect, but it was not picked up equally by the microphone for those on-line.  Repositioning the single microphone was a trade-off to pick up more participants at the expense of reduced quality of the primary speaker. This could be enhanced by investment in a multiple microphone set up”.

“When the purpose of the teaching session is inter-participant communication, eg seminar, then we need to experiment more with all participants (PiP and remote) using zoom-like breakout rooms and headsets. In small classrooms/lecture theatres this is easier to control and can be achieved for lecture and seminar teaching”. 

Video

“Having a visual link to speakers and the PiP class gives an important feeling of participation and value.  I do not think the quality of the video is as important as the audio. Having said that, from the experience of this session a visual link to whoever is speaking makes it easier to focus on what is being said and allows non-verbal communication”.

“I feel it would also be good to have sight of the teacher and the class simultaneously. We spoke about this being important to pick up on cues when online participants can speak. We can see how easy it is to forget the online participants”.

Etiquette

“Appropriate etiquette is important and become vital for large class sizes. Emphasis should be placed on respect for other users, time management to attend equally (IT/bandwidth allowing) and professional level of engagement.  The latter should be specifically mentioned in Graduate Skills and academics should be allowed to comment on student engagement (recognising this is aspirational as it is almost impossible for one lecturer to monitor for large classes)”.

Top Tips for future Hyflex classes

  • There is a risk that an ‘us and them’ divide will form so it is recommended that staff look at mixing online participants and groupings in breakout rooms. PiP students could take turns signing in to Zoom/Teams calls.
  • A major requirement is sound. It would be worth investing in a few microphones to ensure the sound quality is equal between the participants in the room and the teaching lead. There would need to be potential wire issues and feedback issues sorted out. This is of fundamental importance due to the extra concentration and effort needed of online participants to hear what is said in the room. It is worth considering the use of a microphone that could be passed around easily.
  • Having multiple users logged on to zoom in the same physical space increases the chance for echo/feedback and therefore users need to experiment with the set up.
  • Whilst a hi-spec system, such as that available in the Boardroom is desirable, a low-cost camera recording the whole class will enhance feeling of participation, ‘time and place’ for learning.  The primary speaker can use a second camera (laptop or phone).  The two logged on as separate users.
  • Ground rules are needed: when to speak, recapping when unheard would be important, etiquette when joining a classroom remotely and being expected to participate fully as if present in person (but not in pyjamas or lying in bed).
  • Consider pre-planning task set up instructions. It may not always be obvious when students need to be looking at the shared screen, the speaker’s video input, or a gallery view of other online participants.
  • Be open-minded. Experiment with colleagues and test out the experience to determine what makes it easier for the teacher and the students. 

With thanks to the session leaders and participants: Darran Shaw, David Broadbent, Geoffrey Bosson, John Moss, Paul Hubbard, Luisa Wakeling, Eleanor Gordon

Resource: EDUCAUSE (2020) Available at: https://library.educause.edu/resources/2020/7/7-things-you-should-know-about-the-hyflex-course-model

Conversations for Learning – Kay McAlinden

This case study concerns the current module Psychosocial Issues in Cancer and Palliative care (ONC8006) as it is taught in 2020-21 academic year. This module is part of the Cancer and Palliative care programme and as such deals with emotionally challenging topics, including breaking bad news, loss, responding with empathy, screening for distress, anxiety and depression, families and carers, body image issues, survivorship, and interventions such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Mindfulness. It is currently a small module with less than 20 students.

Next year it will be merging with another module, Handling Loss Grief and Bereavement (ONC 8010) and will become Psychosocial issues in Advanced Disease (ONC8030). Several elements of professional development, including a session run by Manchester University, and the FMS TEL Humanising the Online Experience webinar, helped to inspire and implement a few new ways of working which will be carried forward.

Choosing Priorities

Clear themes emerged from the sessions attended, showing what students want from their online courses. Prompt feedback from tutors is clearly valued, as well as ease of access and clear information about assignments. Students want to feel the tutor’s presence in their course and want to be able to give feedback afterwards.

Given that the online environment can be stark and unemotional, and people do not always want to discuss these topics – even in classrooms, teaching this content online was always going to be a challenge. It was important to try and model the communication skills, behaviours and support that students would be learning about, allowing this to stand as an example of good practice.

Zoom Tutorials

The stress and emotional load on students this year has been particularly high both personally and professionally given the impact of COVID on service delivery and home life.  Students often mentioned the difficulties of delivering bad news by phone and trying to support patients and families when there was minimal access to psychosocial services. This prompted the decision to offer Zoom appointments or phone calls to anyone who wanted them. These were offered rather than being compulsory, and not all students took up the offer. These were offered via Canvas announcements.

This year most chats only lasted 10-15 minutes but allowed students to consider how they would approach their essay. Spending this one-to-one time with students, even on the phone or via Zoom, has meant that getting to know them has been a lot easier, and students feel more supported. In some cases, a chat over email was enough, but sometimes it was much more time-effective just to call the student and have a quick chat, rather than spending time drafting and re-drafting a long or complex email.

Many of these chats took the form of one-to-one tutorials on assignments, explaining what was expected and how to do a good job of the assignment, as well as offering reassurance. Careful monitoring of the discussion boards has also allowed issues to be picked up and addressed.

Use of Discussion Boards

This module has always made good use of discussion boards. Participation in the discussion boards has been good, and regular and swift responses to students’ posts have helped further this. Questions such as ‘If you were diagnosed with cancer, who would be around to support you? What if they weren’t there?’ push students to think very deeply about their own personal situations, and to connect compassionately with what they are learning.

Some tasks had options which are less emotive, but most students chose to answer the most emotive task – naturally tutor feedback for this was very rich. This meant it was time-consuming, but also extremely valuable. Adding a simple ‘like’ or a quick remark would have been far too dispassionate for a module like this! Other students were also able to respond in a way that supported each other, thanking one another for their stories.

Further discussion board use included the choice for students to respond in their own private journal area rather than more publicly. This setup can help to engage students when topics are personal or reflective in nature.

Advice and Support from FMS TEL

The advice and support about what is possible, and how to implement things technically has been invaluable. This has allowed for modernisation, development and innovations in the methods used, as well as some experimentation within the module. When trying new things, make sure you set yourself up to succeed by starting small, and starting with what you’re comfortable with, adding more new elements as your confidence grows.

Feedback and Next Steps

This year the use of regular Canvas announcements has been a good way of keeping things on track. The participation in discussion boards and tutorials has been great, and students have said they feel supported. As the module will look very different next year, more adaptations will need to be made. For example, in future it might be useful to offer assignment guidance as a small group tutorial, especially if more students are taking the module. This way it can be scaled up and students can still feel supported.

Now it feels easier to interact with students online than it did at the beginning. Getting to know them as people beyond their studies has been very rewarding for everyone. Small things like being confident enough to use humour, or to share a funny cartoon about the subject, have become easier to judge as time has gone on. This can be tricky to judge if you can’t see faces or are worried about cultural faux pas, but once again, getting to know your class by building community really helps with this.

Resources

Newcastle University Digital Learning – Technology Guides

Enrol in the FMS TEL Canvas Community for access to materials and Canvas notifications of new resources and blog posts.

Humanising the Online Experience Webinar Materials (watch, listen or read)

Discussion Boards Webinar Materials (watch, listen or read) – including examples from this module

Discussion Boards Guides – how to implement different types of boards for different purposes in Canvas and Padlet (for MLE users)

Building Community

I recently spoke to Laura Leonardo about how she and her colleagues build community online. The case study is available to view on the LTDS Case Studies website.

You may find this particularly useful reading if you are working with PGR students who are off-campus or still abroad.

Podcasting Case Study

As part of the research for our Podcasting webinar, I recently spoke to Iain Wheeldon in the School of Arts and Cultures about his experience running his podcast Cultural Peeps.

The resulting case study can be seen on the LTDS Case studies site, and has also been highlighted as part of the Art of the Possible.

Our webinar recording and accompanying resources can be found on the FMS TEL Canvas community. These will be useful for anyone considering incorporating audio-only material in their teaching and assessment, as well as anyone interested in listening to or creating podcasts.

If you have any trouble joining the community, enrol here before retrying the materials link.

Moving Lab Health & Safety Online

In September 2020, the School of Biomedical, Nutritional and Sport Sciences launched their new Laboratory Health and Safety Module.  This online package was designed to give Stage 1 students an induction into key areas of laboratory health and safety, but also as a revision resource for Stages 2 and 3. Future content development will look at additional resources specific to the later stages of study.

Development of this module required a complete redesign of laboratory health and safety resources, moving from paper-based module handbooks to interactive, online blended materials. We had to establish an infrastructure to support both staff and students with this change. We also used key design principles and frameworks to facilitate user engagement with interactive resources.

A collaborative team was formed between the Faculty of Medical Sciences Technology Enhanced Learning team (FMS-TEL) and the school of Biomedical, Nutrition and Sport Sciences (BNS) to amalgamate technological, pedagogical and content knowledge.

Our Goals

Student engagement: Academic staff were finding it difficult to monitor student engagement with the paper-based module handbook and laboratory code of conduct and wanted to have a more standardised approach to ensure that all students are aware of and complying with health and safety requirements in the laboratory.

Blended Learning: We did not want to simply replicate the paper materials into a digital format, so a lot of time was spent thinking about blended learning pedagogy.

New and interactive Resources: Access to the new VLE, Canvas, provided us with a more sophisticated platform to produce an interactive module with new approaches to learning.

Staff Autonomy: We did not want to rely on external tools and specialist software otherwise upkeep and editing would be a challenge once staff handover was completed.

The Project Roadmap below summarises key milestones from the project:

An overview of the project roadmap including project brief, design process and consultations.
Click on image to enlarge

Achievements

Clear Signposting and Navigation

The intention is that students can dip in and out of sections in whichever order they prefer. However, the laboratory safety section was divided into three ordered segments:

  • Arriving at the lab
  • During the lab practical
  • At the end of the lab practical

Multi-disciplinary

Some resources cover all three strands of Biomedicine, Sport and Nutrition so we decided to host one course for all. Subject specific materials are clearly labelled. We attempted to introduce lock and release and mastery pathways so that students would only access their own subject areas, however some students are multi-disciplinary so this did not work. Also, there was too much of a time delay with the Canvas mastery pathways function that we felt this was not appealing to students.

Humanising/Personalisation

We felt it important that students could connect with key staff members and that video welcomes would achieve this.

  • Videos from a laboratory demonstrator
  • Welcome video from Head of School and H+S Officer

Interactive Resources

It was always planned that we would use 360⁰ images to allow students the opportunity to become familiar with the laboratory environment before attending in person. This is to help alleviate some of the anxiety that our students experience when first entering a large laboratory space.

  • 360⁰ lab walkthrough tours
  • 360⁰ interactive images

Innovative assessments

Canvas enabled us the opportunity to embed and host new online interactive assessments.  

(i) 360⁰ hotspots hazard identification

We wanted to create a hazard identification exercise in a safe environment. 360⁰ images allowed us to create an interactive digital version of the laboratory with a number of hazards included. This would not have been safe or possible to do in a physical laboratory space.

The 360⁰ materials were hosted externally on theasys.io There are many tools which allow you to add hotspots to 360⁰ images but the problem is that they are never hidden. However, with the ability to upload custom hotspots in theasys we were able to create and upload a transparent image to use as an invisible hotspot.

(ii) Branching Scenarios

Branching scenarios allow students to make decisions in a safe online environment, helping them to understand the consequences of their choices.

Self-management of learning

We added features to encourage students to monitor their own progress:

  • Standalone units to encourage self managed learning and flexibility
  • Colour-coded and branded sections for ease of navigation
  • Clear learning objectives for each section
  • Section progress bars
  • Content release based on complete action e.g. minimum score in Health and Safety quiz

For future developments, we are considering how we may be able to generate course completion certificates or Digital Badges.

Student Feedback and Canvas Analytics

The new course went live in September 2020 for the start of the academic year with 1176 students enrolled. Canvas analytics indicates good interaction at appropriate times.

  • 21st Sept 28,230 page views
  • 12th October 40, 676
  • January access showed a peak of 26, 997
A data image showing a large proportion of students agreeing the module is user friendly.
A data image showing a large proportion of students agreeing the module is easy to navigate with appropriate images and accessible on all device types.
A data image showing a large proportion of students agreeing the interactive resources were helpful.
A data image showing a large proportion of students agreeing they were taught something new. And 50% of students agreeing having all three subject strands together was useful.

Zoom and MBBS at NUMed with Fiona Clarke

This case study concerns the MBBS programme at NUMed, and the different ways interactive tools and humanising teaching techniques on Zoom has helped facilitate learning during lockdowns. Zoom tools have been used in many different ways, and tools and tips from colleagues, internet searches, and the FMS TEL Humanising the Online Experience webinar have helped enhance these sessions.

From Beginner to Teacher

The prospect of teaching online can be quite daunting, especially if you don’t already have a lot of interest in or experience with the technology. Initially Paul Hubbard offered a help session for Zoom, which was a great help and provided inspiration on how to use the different tools in teaching. With practice, a lot of skills were developed and put into practice with students. After hearing about how Zoom is used in these MBBS sessions, colleagues now come to ask for advice based on the techniques and tools that have been used, and it’s great to be able to provide that for them now.

Humanising the Online Experience in Practice

Turn off Self-View

Some students are very shy, and a range of techniques can help them build their confidence. One among these is turning off self-view in Zoom, which only takes a couple of clicks. This is useful when teaching as well, as your own image can get a little distracting. At first you might worry that you are fidgeting without being aware, but it soon becomes easy to remember that you are still on camera. Students who had initially struggled with presentations or speaking in front of others did become more confident after these interventions, and after getting more comfortable with the Zoom environment.

Encouragement to Switch on Cameras

One thing that has worked very well is giving a lot of deliberate positive feedback to students about switching on their cameras. At the start of sessions students are greeted warmly and the benefits of having the camera on are shared. More importantly, efforts are made to share how lovely it is to see their faces when they do turn the camera on. Even saying something like ‘it’s so nice to see you’ or ‘I’ve missed seeing you all’ as cameras come on encourages others. Since making this deliberate extra effort, a lot more students turn on their cameras during sessions, which helps lift the atmosphere.

Teaching Ethics

Teaching concepts like ethics can be tricky, as they don’t lend themselves to a practical format. To help bring the subject material to life, the ethics segment of the Medicine, Acute Care and Surgery course was previously presented in a very interactive format in person. Students used flipcharts to collate information, moved around the room, worked in groups, did card sorting activities… initially this seemed difficult to replicate online, but it was possible to adapt the sessions using Zoom tools like polling, breakout rooms for group work, and interactive whiteboards.

Approximating In-Hospital Experience

One thing that has been a challenge for the programme is the lack of access to hospitals due to the pandemic, especially for The Hospital-Based Practice course. This is normally case-based, interacting with real patients. The decision was made to create staged patient interactions. These sessions work a bit like branching scenarios in that what the student chooses to do guides the rest of the interaction. A ‘patient’ acts from a script on the Zoom call, and the lecturer can coach the student through the interaction and offer feedback. If the student chooses to, for example, listen to a patient’s breathing, the lecturer provides a sound file of what the student hears when they do so. While this can’t perfectly replicate what it’s like on a ward (patients don’t follow a script!), students still get the chance to practice skills like decision-making and explaining diagnoses.

Advice

The best advice is to try things out and experiment in a Zoom meeting on your own, or with colleagues. Even if you have used a tool before, if it has been a while, just start up an empty Zoom meeting and refresh your memory before it’s time to go live. Google has also been invaluable – it’s possible to fix common issues or refresh your memory by finding software instructions online. Finally, don’t be afraid to try out new tools with students. The interactivity tools such as polls and whiteboards can help bridge the gap and make sessions more engaging.

“Don’t be afraid, just try it out! It’s so worth it, it makes such a difference.”

Fiona Clarke

Resources

Contact

Dr Fiona Clarke, Associate Professor and Senior Lecturer in Medicine, NUMed

Fiona.clarke1@nhs.net

Digital Code for Teaching Anatomy Online – Joanna Matthan

Jo Matthan (Director of Academic Studies, School of Dental Sciences) talks about the teaching of Head and Neck Anatomy (DEN1101) within the School of Dental Sciences (SDS) at the Faculty of Medical Sciences (FMS), and how the move to online teaching necessitated the development of a specialised Digital Code around the use of cadaveric imagery.

Background

In Present-in-Person (PiP) teaching, students attending this foundational head and neck anatomy course would typically have access to the Dissecting Room for their learning. This would be delivered over a six-month period in their first year on either the Dental Surgery (BDS) or the BSc Oral and Dental Health Sciences degrees. This face-to-face time has been reduced to 12 hours from the approximately 50 hours of hands-on anatomy teaching delivered, which left a considerable amount of content to be covered in the digital format. In normal times, a code of conduct is signed by every student the first time they enter the restricted Anatomy and Clinical Skills Centre teaching facility. This was utilised in a digital format during the pandemic but, due to the major overhaul in teaching delivery, there was no way of reinforcing the messages contained within the code of conduct on a regular basis. It felt like a tall order to expect students to remember and understand a list of statements that is seemingly far-removed from them at the start of their anatomy learning journey, and to retain this volume of information in the digital era.

Due to the highly sensitive nature of working with donated cadaveric material and the associated professional standards and ethical considerations linked to this usage, it was necessary to develop a set of guidance to protect the dignity of donors, whilst simultaneously guiding educators, students and institutions on the manifold issues to consider when transitioning to online cadaveric teaching. The sensitive material (i.e., cadaveric images) would not normally be available to students on an ad hoc basis on their own devices. As this content still needed to be covered to ensure the healthcare professionals received all of the necessary training they needed to practice their profession safely and keep patients safe, questions arose around the potential for covert screen-capture, unauthorised viewing and wider sharing of cadaveric content. Such breaches of professionalism have widespread implications, not merely for the course and programme but potentially for the institution. It became clear that it was necessary to collate clear guidance for staff and students to steer through the digital landscape.

Developing an In-house Digital Code

An in-house digital code was developed as part of the SDS Digital Delivery Working Group – a student-staff collaboration that convened over summer 2020 to specifically mitigate for any anticipated issues that could arise from the shift to online delivery for both students and educators within the School. Three different digital codes were created, each in the form of a holding slide that could be utilised in (1) Cadaveric Anatomy Teaching, (2) Clinical Teaching and (3) Seminar or Lecture-based teaching situations. These slides were circulated to the FMS TEL Group and then circulated for feedback from the other Schools that grapple with similar concerns around donor dignity and patient confidentiality. A basic confidentiality agreement was later put in place institutionally, but this was not specific to anatomy or teaching involving potential breaches of patient information. It was felt that, in the new era of digital delivery, it would be more beneficial to reinforce the message of a common digital code at every learning encounter to clearly communicate to students the expectations and behaviours appropriate for this form of teaching. For this purpose, the Digital Code for anatomy was developed, with the aim of utilising it as a holding slide for every synchronous encounter, and as a recorded slide at the start of each non-synchronous session that included cadaveric content.

Digital Code in Practice

The Digital Code slide is displayed at the beginning of every teaching session, whether synchronous or non-synchronous. In synchronous sessions, it is used as the ‘holding slide’ displayed as students enter the video call. When teaching begins, the slide is also reinforced verbally to signal the start of the learning and shared professionalism code of conduct. In practice, it may feel that the points around ethical standards and professionalism are somewhat overemphasised but, given how important they are, the Digital Code does bear repeating. In non-synchronous sessions, a pre-recorded initial slide is added to every lecture recording to reinforce the message not to view the recording in public and to adhere to the digital code. This is added to all recordings from all contributors.

The slide shows 10 dos and don'ts. Do find a quiet place for viewing, switch off from other devices and social media, be mindful many are working from home and disruptions may occur, focus on the session at hand, mute yourself when not speaking and unmute yourself when speaking, raise your hand if you want to ask a question, switch your camera on if possible when speaking. DO NOT view this material/session in a public place, breach confidentiality, take screenshots, use and screen-recording or recording devices to capture these sessions, share material from the sessions, post or discuss sensitive material on social media
The Digital Code slide (download .ppt slide at the end of the post)

The Digital Code slide gives a simple overview of both the required professional behaviours for healthcare professionals and unacceptable behaviours, bringing the more abstract guidance document into clear actionable focus. As a result, students are very clearly aware of the professional expectations expected of them in their chosen field of study, and these regular reminders serve to reinforce this. This is much more effective than simply citing a document which may have only been seen once at the beginning of the course. The existence of this Code is beneficial not only for students who, it is hoped, develop a sense of responsibility with the access to sensitive content, but also for donors, teachers and institutions who can rely on clear guidance but also appreciate that institutions have pre-defined consequences for any breaches – of which none have been reported thus far. Students have displayed high levels of professional conduct throughout the anatomy teaching in SDS and have adopted the digital code without any apparent reluctance or challenges. It is highly likely that, once students return to physical classrooms, this practice will be continued and developed.

Taking it a step further: Developing National Guidance for Online Cadaveric Imaging

Due to manifold misunderstandings on the legislation and guidance around the use of cadaveric images, it became clear at an informal National Designated Individual (DI) / Head of Anatomy Forum (convened to improve communication during the pandemic and consisting of heads of anatomy units and DIs from across the UK, as well as representatives of the regulatory bodies from each country) that educators could benefit from a unified front with regards to digital cadaveric education. A small group from within this informal forum (consisting of representatives from Brighton Sussex Medical School, Newcastle University and University of Nottingham) collated anecdotal and professional experiences with patient confidentiality and social media guidance documentation and developed a three-pronged approach to using cadaveric content online. The first step was to search for guidance from the relevant professional bodies. The Human Tissue Authority (HTA), the national body who regulate teaching related to cadaveric specimens in England, is virtually silent on the use of images of a cadaveric nature, and decisions relating to how images can be used are made by the local HTA DI within institutions. There is also a paucity of guidance on image usage in this context from the devolved nations’ regulatory bodies/inspectors. Some institutions do have some guidance around social media and images, but there is no unified and unambiguous guidance on cadaveric teaching in the online era.

The draft guidance document was circulated to the DI Forum and to the HTA for comments and the final document amended with suggested changes. The current version, along with a suggested PowerPoint slide, is already utilised at SDS for teaching purposes. It has recently been presented at the March 2021 meeting of the Trans-European Pedagogic Anatomical Research Group (TEPARG), at which it proved very popular across the European countries represented, and has been widely lauded for its clarity and utility during this period of intense change. The guidance document, with the digital code appended to it, is now in use across many institutions nationally and internationally and is being reviewed for formal dissemination.

Resources

Human Tissue Authority

TEPARG – Trans-European Pedagogic Anatomical Research Group

Newcastle University Digital Etiquette Guide

Newcastle University Staff – Join our Canvas Community for access to all resources

Download the Slide and Guidance from our Canvas Community

Chameleon Programme – Blended Working

The Project Beginning

In September 2019, I started a Chameleon Programme that was tasked with reviewing how the university could support colleagues to work more flexibly. A particularly relevant topic as it turned out!

The Chameleon Programme is a year long business improvement programme that involves colleagues from across the university working together, in multi-functional teams, on specific projects set by Senior Officers Group . I was teamed with three other university colleagues, who work in different areas of the university and with different roles.  Our project sponsor was John Hogan and we had to set about devising plan and understanding our project scope.

We began by gathering information from sources at the forefront of flexible working, such as CIPD and ACAS, as well as reviewing existing university policies . Interviews with various colleagues across the university, such as School and services managers gave us a better understanding of what ​Flexible working meant in the context of our university. Consensus was that there was support for increased flexible working practices but there was a need for greater guidance to ensure fairness . 

We also had the opportunity to visit an external company, called The Thirteen Group, who are a social housing provider located in Middlesbrough.  Their belief is based on staff being in control of their working patterns with productivity measured by outputs rather than presenteeism. They invested heavily in infrastructure and technology as well as providing guiding principles, with endorsement from senior leadership, which was key to driving the changes. ​It had showcased what was possible.

Desk availability system and The Thirteen Group

We decided to try to mirror some of the Thirteen Group principle through an initiative called ‘Flexible Fortnight’ – the principle was to remove existing boundaries to working times and allow teams to manage working hours accordingly, and we were to capture staff response via a survey.

We had a plan.  We had teams ready to take part in the Flexible Fortnight and had generated recommendations that could be put forward and arranging events to present our findings.

Then, it all changed

Then COVID came along! 

COVID has been responsible in changing working patterns, for most employees, across the university; how we work, where we work and when we work. 

In March 2020, everything changed.  The majority of us were asked to work from home.   It was potentially the best Chameleon project ever! Or it might be the worst ever!

What did that mean for our project?  Well, it meant change too.  We could no longer pursue the initiatives that we had arranged.  So, we created a questionnaire to incorporate feedback about working for home.  We combined the survey results with the findings from our research and submitted a report in June 2020 to our sponsor.  We were also invited to be part of some of the Executive Board lunch meetings that touched on the new way of remote working and listened to feedback from staff across the wider University.    

Its flexible; its informal; its team specific; its build on trust.

This culminated, in December 2020, with an invitation to join a task and finishing group for blended working. The group includes representation from the Faculties, People Services, NUIT, Estates and Trade Unions with the focus on discussing how the university workforce could mix campus-based working and working remotely, post pandemic. Consultations are still ongoing, papers have been submitted to various committees, and webinars have been arranged to give colleagues the opportunity to hear plans first hand. Hopefully, this will be the start of clearer vision going forward.

The Future of working patterns

What have we learnt? A lot! One thing is certain, there is a consensus that we do not want to go back to the way we operated before. Why would we look back when we have come so far? Though the past year has been challenging on many different levels, it has also allowed many of us to gain first-hand experience of working in more flexible ways. There is an opportunity to embrace change from the lessons learnt and build a more modern approach to our working culture and behaviours. To make a change like this before COVID was hard to imagine.

As a project team, we have achieved far more than we ever envisaged; having helped give guidance and findings to potentially changes in University working patterns and policies.  The Chameleon programme lasts for 12 months and this is where it comes to an end for or team. However, we hand over the baton now and the story continues. Only time will show what the university does to progress and evolve the changes it needs to our working patterns.

We have been fortunate in terms of the timing of our project and I feel that we have taken advantage of the situation to allow us to leave a legacy from Chameleon project on the university.

From a Chameleon Project, For the University

From Blackboard and Ngage to Canvas

In the summer of 2020 Newcastle University switched from Blackboard to Canvas. In truth, some online modules had been hosted on Canvas months before the official launch, but from August 1st 2020 Canvas was the exclusive Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). The content that had previously been in Blackboard was transferred over to Canvas, creating three years’ worth of archives. For the majority of courses this was fine, as Blackboard was only ever a repository for course materials. For the e-learning courses offered in the FMS Graduate School and the School of Medical Education, there was an additional challenge.

In addition to Blackboard, e-learning courses also used Ngage, a bespoke VLE used widely throughout FMS. Quizzes, assignments and discussion boards could all be found on Blackboard, but Ngage was home to the actual content, typically released weekly to students. Where Blackboard content could be migrated en masse, anything on Ngage had to be migrated over manually. Page by page, course by course, for all three semesters.

The Ngage user interface.
The Ngage user interface. (Click the image to see a full size version – opens in a new tab)


Once the content was copied over, we had to adapt it to fit the new platform. Discussion boards and assignments were like for like, but certain Blackboard features such as blogs and eJournals had no direct equivalent on Canvas. This required creative problem solving to adapt Canvas to our specific needs, and with help from the Canvas Community we were able to find solutions. For example to create an eJournal, a staple of many of our modules, we had to assign every student to their own private group, and then set up a regular discussion board as a ‘group discussion’ and selecting the pre-prepared eJournal groups, thereby creating a private area for students to make notes on the different topics and have the module leader’s check over them.

The same page on the new Canvas VLE. A less clutter page with a built-in discussion board and a crisper overall presentation. (Click the image to see a full size version – opens in a new tab)


A lot of visual features and formatting were also lost during the copying and pasting process, meaning pages previously adorned with images and embedded materials had to be reworked. We utilised the web design skills of the FMS TEL Team and with a bit of creativity were able to create interactive features such as click and reveal, and visual aspects, such as shadowboxes, to help emphasise particular pieces of text.

As well as the migration of content, a huge effort was made to train University staff in the run up to the 2020/21 academic year. Training sessions that had originally been scheduled in-person were instead delivered via Zoom, covering areas such as Canvas essentials, assignments and quizzes. To supplement the training, a Canvas orientation module was created to help ease staff into the transition. Additionally, every member of University staff was assigned their own sandbox course allowing them to experiment with the new platform and test out features that could be replicated in real courses.

The Canvas orientation home page. (Click the image to see a full size version – opens in a new tab)

Now that we are exclusively using Canvas, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Despite some initial challenges with the practicalities of using a new VLE – and some trial and error – new Canvas features such as Zoom integration, built in calendars and Speedgrader have enhanced the user experience.

Dealing with extra sensitive data in the Medical Learning Environment (MLE)

Most FMS sites run by the unit contain and maintain personal data that needs to be kept private. Techniques such as securely certified websites and authentication/authorisation portals are usually sufficient in keeping this data safe.

The Challenge

With the introduction of the new year 4 in the MBBS curriculum and the move to more blended learning, a higher degree of sensitive data was required to be stored on the Medical Learning Environment (VLE for MBBS). Year 4 students are now asked to keep electronic records of patients and interactions as part of the Advanced Clinical Experience module. This data contained personal contact details such as address, telephone and email of patients the students would follow on the clinical journey, and let them reflect upon this experience throughout year 4.

So before the start of Year 4, in the summer of 2020, we investigated and implemented an enhanced way of storing this patient information in the MLE.

The Solutions

First we investigated how the data was stored in the backend database. Most information is stored in databases as unencrypted data due to the lack of sensitive nature of the data.

This new data required something else. It was decided that parts of the data that could contain personal patient information should be encrypted, both in transit and at rest.

For parts of the ACE model (the data structure we use for the ACE section of MLE) we replaced the open text fields with this new encrypted field. This now meant that when data was entered and saved, before it was added to the database, the system would replace the open text with a encrypted data set using a secure key. To read the data again it would need the use of the decrypt method, that only the MLE could do by using the secure key.

The second part we investigated was to detach any personal patient information from the student’s reflections. Once the student had completed the recording of the patient’s details, the direct link in the website was removed and generic patient information used from that point onwards to identify the individual records. This kept the sensitive information separate from the day to day recording of patient interactions.

The students also uploaded consent forms signed by patients who agreed to take part in the ACE module. Final versions of consent forms highlighted that these would also contained sensitive information.

After further investigation the development team included these static files in the encryption methods used to support ACE. In order to allow students to verify the uploaded consent forms, the MLE allows a short window before encryption and archiving of consent forms takes place. Once this process completes the consent forms are no longer accessible via the website (MLE) and recovery if required is performed by a limited number of staff in FMS TEL.

These methods used may be a little extreme for the day to day data stored on most FMS sites, but the investigations and lessons learned from the ACE data has provided us with options for other sites in the future.

If you are interested in this topic and wish to learn more, please contact:

Dan Plummer, Learning Technologies Developer, dan.plummer@newcastle.ac.uk

John Moss, Technology Enhanced Learning Manager, john.moss@newcastle.ac.uk