Going the distance with a Hackathon: Reflecting as a first-time participant

Hackathons. It’s one of those words that seems to be cropping up a lot in education these days. I initially thought it was something to do with software development. With distant memories of Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, I pictured young, mostly male coders typing intensely into the small hours of the morning, fuelled mostly by pizza and (an admittedly biased view) a geekish love of programming. In this blog post I will try to offer a different perspective by reflecting on a rather different sort of Hackathon experience, wearing the hats of both learner and academic developer. 

This motivation to learn more about Hackathons has come from the fact that DCU is engaging in a major curriculum transformation project – DCU Futures – which includes Challenge Based Learning (CBL) as a key pedagogy. CBL is fundamentally about the investigation of real-life problems related to pressing societal issues. It is a pedagogical approach that is increasingly being used in higher education to foster transversal skills, increase knowledge of socio technical problems, and enhance collaboration with industry and community stakeholders (Gallagher & Savage, 2020). A hackathon is one example of CBL in practice but it can take other forms including projects, design events, or competitions that aim to solve difficult problems. Lyons, Brown & Donlon (2021, p.1) describe a hackathon as an ‘intensive run’ where participants commit to forming collaborative teams to resolve and present solutions to real-world challenges during an allocated period of time. 

Most of us in Higher Education are completely new to the notion of Hackathons and even fewer of us again have actually organised one. Since supporting the design and implementation of CBL is part of the Teaching Enhancement Unit remit, it seemed important to get an authentic experience on how this approach might work. There could be no better way to ‘walk in the shoes of students’, than to get a first-hand experience of a Hackathon for myself.

The opportunity to get that experience came in the form of a recent weekend event for postgraduate research students with DCU Institute of Education called ‘Hack to Transform’. As a current DCU EdD student, I was thus able to join a ready made, well-organised, educationally-oriented event where I would hopefully get a good sense of how such things worked. Organised by Dr Gillian Lake, PGSR Programme Chair, this newly hatched Hackathon was described as follows:

A hackathon is a creative problem-solving event.  In this event, research students come together to solve/hack an education challenge for the 21st Century, in just two days!

While not initially enamoured of the idea of giving up most of a weekend for this (yes, I did have to think carefully about the commitment as I’m glad to report that I do have a life), curiosity prevailed and I signed up.

How the Hackathon Happened

It took place Nov 26th and Nov 27th. It was all done entirely on Zoom (3.5 hours on Friday evening and 10.5 hours on the Saturday) and there were 15 of us taking part. Several of these were Phd or EdD students but there was also a good smattering of nosy support staff and academics on board. So what exactly did we do?

Approximately one week before the event we were given the title of the challenge: “How can we ensure the most effective educational experience for all in the 21st Century?”. We were asked to come up with a 60 second pitch for how we might solve this challenge. The ask was to pitch our ideas to fellow competitors to get them to come on our team.  We were given guidance that pitches were to be no more than 60 secs long and no slides were allowed. The idea was that based on the five most popular pitches, participants would self-select their teams. On the Friday evening, we voted for the top pitches to whittle down the list. Then everyone self selected to the pitch that resonated most with them and the teams were born.

My own pitch on building a university policy that commits to meaningful student contribution to the design of every single new course from September 2022 was not successful (boo hoo!) but I did get to join my colleague Rob Lowney’s team which also had a HE focus and a student partnership angle. Rob had the idea to develop a data warehouse and dashboard solution that integrates educational data within DCU to empower students and staff to plan for the future.  Emma Gallagher, Teaching Fellow at DCU also joined the team, bringing her much-needed second-level perspective to the table. Other tempting pitches included the development of an open multicultural space (“pocket of community”) for vulnerable communities and non-students in the university environment; development of holistic, multiple intelligence assessment processes; and the use of more playful “FUNdamental” learning experiences in education.

With the teams all sorted, things kicked off bright and early on the Saturday morning with a very full timetable for the day. Over the course of the day we needed to develop a persuasive problem statement, work with a designated mentor, and ultimately create a solution that would win over a judging panel. Through various pep talks and videos, it was made clear to us that we needed to come up with a clearly stated problem, an innovative solution, and a creative presentation by 5.15 pm that day. We were advised to think about roles within the team and take heed of the advice to understand the ‘who’ (Who are the people experiencing the problem? How will this solution make their lives better?).  We were warned that slides were off limits and given the judging criteria which would be based on our agility in response to the task, our innovation, our focus on a real-world problem and solution, and our presentation skills.

Mentor Advice

Our team was very lucky to land the mentor of Ciaran Flynn, founder of Child Paths who challenged us to identify our Unique Selling Point (USP) and define what success would look like. Ciaran asked us to research if there was something similar available elsewhere, narrow down the problem and write our proposal in simpler terms.

He highlighted various aspects from Design Thinking including:

  • Need to show how our intended audience will benefit (EMPATHY)
  • Need to define and condense the problem (DEFINE)
  • Identify when we will know if the solution is successful – was there anyone we could connect with to see if this was a real-world problem and solution? Could we call on a student, for example? (IDEATE)
  • Would it be possible to present this visually? (PROTOTYPE)
  • Ask colleagues for feedback (TEST)
  • Prepare a compelling presentation of the solution, using the principles of storytelling (LAUNCH)

He also encouraged us to have confidence that our solution will work, try to avoid making assumptions and consider ‘before and after’ perspectives in order to drive home what was going to change by having students more involved in the process. He highlighted that it was important to identify markers of success, highlight our own expertise in the space, and also ensure that the USP of the solution was visible and clear. Alas ours was not the winning team at the end of the day (kudos to the FUNdamental team for a seriously good solution and pitch) but the learning from this experience was immense.

Pros and Cons to My Hackathon Experience

On the plus side: 

  • Coming up with a 60 second pitch was relatively easy and enjoyable
  • The idea the team worked on was definitely innovative – there’s nothing like this out there at the moment and it was something that we all could contribute to in different ways.
  • We collaborated closely and we did end up allocating areas of responsibility – we set up a Whatsapp, worked well on the central Google Docs and on Zoom, and kept a sense of humour most of the time (although I admittedly was feeling a bit stressed with the rush to get things done in the afternoon.)
  • We talked through what the problem solution could be and we gained insights into second-level and third level perspectives
  • We definitely were Agile, moved quickly, and listened to each other – we struggled with how the presentation should start but negotiated this and the role play idea (which allowed sharing of student and staff perspectives) turned out to be a really good fit. It also allowed us to bring our personalities to the process, which was a real bonus. 
  • We were not afraid to challenge each other – eg We pondered the connotations of Sure Things (!) as a title for our tool and we did negotiate over the best presentation format
  • Our presentation was actually fun – people seemed to respond well and I, for one, enjoyed the role play aspect and plan to use that again in teaching and presenting. 

All team members were natural collaborators.
All had an interest and belief in student partnership in education.
All were technically adept and open to change.

On the ‘could have gone better’ side, with the benefit of hindsight: 

  • We probably rushed the scripting part of the presentation because we ran out of time to prepare that part of the day.
  • We didn’t bring all the perspectives we had researched to the table – in my own case, I felt I could have played more on the input of the student and National Forum expert views I had collected. In retrospect, instead of collecting these elements privately, I could have made more use of Twitter which would have made this more visible.
  • Possibly most importantly, I suspect we probably took on a complex problem that needed more time to refine the message.

In other words, it turned out that we needed more time to explain what was a complex proposition in the script. While we were asked to ‘Think Big’ I think perhaps it was too much to attempt to explain the benefits of student partnership, the potential value of learner analytics, AND introduce a never-seen-before dashboard in role play form in 6 minutes. Rob did a super job in explaining the tool and creating a mock up prototype and Emma scripted and acted a wonderfully authentic student voice but I think we took on a very big task to be clear, succinct and informative on the core USP of the process and dashboard. I believe that my academic voice could possibly have been more critical (I’m not sure all academics would have responded quite as positively as the role play suggested!). This all might have been possible if we had allowed more time to refine our message, perhaps focusing on three key points (eg the three particularly useful and topical pieces of data of direct relevance to the students). This had been suggested earlier but possibly got lost in the frenzy of activity and questions.

In retrospect, we actually did come up with a clear problem statement and with more time, would have incorporated this further: 

What is the problem?

University curricula are key to enabling 21st century skills. But university processes for renewing curricula are stuck in the 20th century. A 5 yearly curriculum review is not agile enough to meet the 21st century skills agenda. We need constant reflection on and refinement of our curricula to meet ambitious 21st century targets set by supranational and national policy centres.
The student voice needs to be at the centre of it and it needs to be an informed and empowered voice. Let’s make it easy for students to reflect on their educational experience by giving them ownership of their learning data, through an opt-in data dashboard. Then give them a seat at the table to tell staff what it’s really like on the ground so staff can refine the curricula with up-to-date information and experience.

A Concluding Top Ten

But it was never really about coming up with the perfect solution under such conditions and really my personal takeaways are more about what the lessons are for the future – and sharing what might be of use to other educators planning to integrate Hackathons in some way into their teaching. This is just one perspective on one event, of course, but in no particular order, my top 10 takeaways are as follows…

  1. I learned that Hackathons, done well, can be a hugely powerful approach to addressing challenges and I may be something of a convert – even without pizza.
  2. They seem to get a lot done in an extraordinarily short period of time and could act as a stimulating kick start to projects. However, the problem needs to be appropriate to the timescale and students need a lot of support in identifying and refining essential questions to be answered.
  3. They are ideal for rapid group work – but they assume a motivated group who don’t have any group work baggage and are ready and able to work together as a team. We could have used Belbin’s team roles, potentially, or other group work preparatory tools.
  4. More time for individual work would have benefited us and there is very little space for this in such a tight timeframe. Part of me knows that for introverted types, a Hackathon could be hell on earth (at least initially). Can anything be done to make Hackathons both challenging AND inclusive? Or is the discomfort half the point?
  5. I also strongly believe that a follow up reflective component is essential as there is much to parse from the event and that could easily be lost without adequate time to reflect.
  6. The time management component seems essential – especially when trying to do something novel and creative. Students and staff are likely to need support with this.
  7. It promoted creativity and I for one loved the role play dimension – I think it would have been very difficult to showcase staff AND student perspectives without thinking differently in the presentation.
  8. Might there be a way to thrash out the problem and solution more efficiently? Perhaps being told you’ve got to come up with the three main problems and the solution that would address those might have helped? What support does the mentor need to help participants tease these out?
  9. Yes, time ran away with us and it is pretty exhausting but I am not sure if I can move any faster!!! I’m not 20 – but then again, I’m not really the target audience for most Hackathon events.
  10. Finally, most of us working in academic development are definitely not in our comfort zone with this approach – but if you get the chance to participate in something like this, go for it and draw your own conclusions for yourself. 


Gallagher, S.E.  & Savage, T.  (2020). Challenge-based learning in higher education: an exploratory literature review. Teaching in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2020.1863354

Lyons, R., Brown, M., & Donlon, E. (2021). Moving the hackathon online: Reimagining pedagogy for the digital age. Distance Education in China, 7, [English Version].

Revisiting the White-Knuckle Ride of the Live Online Classroom

Almost four years ago I wrote a blog post capturing reflections on my first attempts at facilitating what were then called Virtual Classroom sessions. That blog post describes how challenging I found teaching in this format initially: stresses included technology worries, the ‘speaking into the void’ oddness, and the general fear of looking foolish which this mode of teaching seemed to amplify. Today those seem like very innocent times and in the circumstances I write, the transition to this form of teaching is, for many, much more urgent and abrupt. Some may take to the new mode like a duck to water but others may not, at least not at first. So thinking back on my own early experiences, and having facilitated many more webinars in the interim, is there anything useful I can offer those who might be taking their first tentative steps with live online classrooms at this time?  In case it helps anyone, my three top tips for reducing the level of potential stress are: 

1. Tap into your supports

At DCU, thanks to the extensive support being offered by colleagues (webinars and clinics from the Teaching Enhancement Unit (TEU) by the day and valuable resources on swiftly moving online being curated by NIDL colleagues), there is vast technological support and guidance available. The network of resources and tips continues to grow right across Ireland and the world. Your peers are another invaluable sounding board – there has clearly been a massive increase in the numbers learning about online teaching, many of whom are likely encountering similar questions and issues as you, which can be very reassuring to hear. Find them where you can and share experiences, both the ups and the downs. It’s also worth noting that the platforms have also upped their game in recent years and the kinds of technical issues from years ago are much less likely to happen now.

2. Record your sessions where possible

Recording your sessions is highly recommended – many students may not have the technological or personal bandwidth to participate ‘live’ at this time so recording your classes and sharing them afterwards could be an essential means of access for some. (Indeed recording lectures might also help to reduce the challenges so many lecturing staff have when trying to work from home these days – if you need your attention elsewhere – minding kids, for example –  then pre-recording your lectures, perhaps in shorter segments, might work better for you.)

Recording Reminder.jpg
Stick a post it note to your computer to remind yourself about recording and other important points.

3. Go easy on yourself

Expect initial wobbles – they are almost guaranteed. Like all forms of pedagogy, teaching in the live online classroom benefits from repeat practice. But with the best will in the world, things will go wrong sometimes: You will forget to hit ‘Record’ on occasion. You might find yourself over talking. The audio quality may be dodgy and you may not hear from the students as much as you would like. But as you get more practice and your students grow more confident with the medium, you might find you want to extend the level of interactivity and hopefully even enjoy the approach much more than you might have at first. That has been my own experience and while broadcasting standard smoothness continues to elude, the flexibility of the mode and the positive feedback from participants has made it well worthwhile.

Over the coming weeks, you will hear more about how people are adjusting to the move to online teaching overall via the forthcoming Teaching@DCU newsletter. But in the meantime, take a bow Micheal Bruening for this rousing rendition of ‘I will survive’ for helping us to laugh in these challenging times:

I will survive, Coronavirus version for teachers going online
I will survive, Coronavirus version for teachers going online: Check out on YouTube

Teaching for the Realities of Student Life Today

Is this a record? A blog post that was started about three months ago that is only now seeing the light of day? Whatever about the realities of student life, the realities of my life are showing some creaks in my blogging scheme. But as the late great Leslie Nielsen said, that’s not important right now and instead I’m going to focus on what I did want to write about – namely ‘Teaching for the Realities of Student Life Today’. This was the theme of a recent Sipping Point teaching conversation session at DCU and it’s the theme of this blog post.

The goal of the above session was to develop awareness of common life challenges faced by many of our students and talk through some ideas that might help for the benefit of both students and lecturers. Dr Dónal Mulligan, DCU School of Communications, focused on commuting-related issues he is increasingly witnessing and gave some ideas for potential approaches to consider. Dr Claire Bohan, DCU Director of Student Support & Development, presented a timely snapshot of the types of issues reported by students and shared insights on what seems to make a difference. What follows is a quick rundown on what was discussed.

Donal GN 2.JPG
Dr Donal Mulligan, DCU School of Communications, presenting at ‘The Sipping Point’ earlier this year.

Dónal Mulligan began by exploring some of the issues about the impact of commuting on the educational experience, particularly when compared with student renting models that might have been pretty standard in the past. For starters, there is clearly a higher percentage of commuting students attending university today, illustrating the wider impact of exorbitant rent prices. Having conducted a straw poll of first year students in one undergraduate class, he discovered that 81% commute daily with more than half of those spending upwards of 90 minutes each way.

This trend is clearly having an impact on what is happening in the classroom: Dónal uses peer review extensively in his teaching and he has noticed an increasing perception of ‘lack of contribution’ being attributed to commuting students in group project peer reviews. In other words, commuting students were in some cases being seen as doing less work outside of class but in self-assessing their contributions, these same students did not seem to perceive this as an issue. This type of pattern “extending over multiple projects, or longer-term group-based work, increasingly isolates those students, with sometimes stark effects on grades, participation more generally, and wellbeing.” In programmes where group work is high stakes and indeed pivotal to the learning experience, this is obviously a very big deal for all concerned.

Claire Bohan then talked about the view from her side of the house, outlining a picture of the student body in terms of diversity and entry routes. She began by reminding us that the numbers of students at DCU have increased dramatically in recent years – there has been a 77% increase in student numbers since 2002 so perhaps not surprisingly there has been an increase in the demand for various student services. She then presented a snapshot of the types of issues reported by students and shared insights on what seems to help, including a sense of belonging and speedy access to advice.

Screen Shot 2019-02-28 at 10.49.47

CB What's important slide
Dr Claire Bohan, DCU Director of Student Support & Development, shares what seems to help.

Can lecturers make a difference?

Claire’s point about the value of informal reassurances from staff when interacting with students is also reflected in a useful chapter from Bamber & Jones (2015) that is worth checking out. Bamber & Jones advise that lecturers make efforts to build/facilitate community, and take steps to help students manage the learning process (eg time management) in conversations and guidance. Among Bamber & Jones’ other recommendations are a call for regular ‘reality checking’ in order to get a sense of topical and important student issues – a quick online poll or show of hands might be all it takes to get a powerful insight into the profile of students in the classroom and what matters to them at that time. Throughout the session the following questions and comments were made by those present:

  • How to address the challenges of group work within the confines of 12 weeks? It was suggested that communicating a very clear rationale for why group work is happening helps and ideally this type of group work ‘induction’ should happen early in 1st year. Dónal now explicitly teaches team dynamics and project management (eg delegation, process, remote collaboration) as early as possible, even in just a 30 minute slot if that’s all that is possible. He has also developed an adaptable Google Forms-based tool to enhance self and peer review practice and facilitate early lecturer intervention in addressing/minimising potential group issues.
  • What about the issue of loss of small/quiet spaces to work? This was acknowledged as an ongoing problem, with some good news that more spaces and furnishings are on the way to address. It was strongly recommended that for first years especially, it helps if rooms are booked for collaboration and if collaborative working sessions are timetabled during regular teaching hours – this can act to drive home the expectation that there is more to the process than simply showing up in class.
  • There was an interesting comment that for many their friends on the train are their ‘real’ cohort of social friends at college, given the amount of time spent in their company.
  • The timetabling question was raised – One attendee asked can it be rethought to enable more intensive teaching and time in the subject rather than fleeting hours here and there which may be much less effective.
  • Might digital tech play a role in all of this? There were some reservations that simply putting course materials or activities online may not be as impactful as it might seem.
  • Struggling students – what should the lecturer do when someone just doesn’t get it, despite repeated efforts to explain? Claire highlighted the success of the maths learning centre and encouraged referrals there if needed.
  • Finally there was a comment that perhaps the loss of career guidance at second level could be affecting student expectations as to what their courses really involve.

There were some silver linings to it all with the news from Claire Bohan that a spanking new ‘Leadership and Life Skills Centre’ is being developed at DCU. As well as leadership programmes at different levels, this will include students creating their own Personal and Professional Development Plans aimed at addressing many of the challenges described above. The availability of mindfulness workshops was also praised, particularly given the difficulties some students may have with worrying and switching off. I’m quite sure there is much more to be written on this overall topic from both staff and student perspectives (eg the experiences of first-in-family students) but my own immediate realities are closing in and so that is it for me for now.


Bamber, V. & Jones, A., 2015. Challenging students: Enabling inclusive learning. A Handbook for Teaching and Learning. New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 152-169.

Teaching & Assessing in Labs: A non-scientific view

I didn’t want to let too much time to go by without noting a discussion I found particularly striking this past week. As part of this month’s Sipping Point, Dr Emma Coyle and Veronica Dobbyn from DCU School of Chemical Sciences kindly agreed to share their considerable experiences of teaching and assessing in the laboratory environment. The session also included a short tour of a lab to help contextualise the discussion. As someone who hasn’t set foot in a ‘real’ science lab since 1987, I was looking forward to getting a brief, nostalgic window into that part of the university – but the session turned out to also offer insights into approaches to teaching and assessment that I believe deserve a wider audience.

Veronica Dobbyn, Chief Technical Officer at the School of Chemical Sciences, began by focusing on various efforts made to accommodate students who may present in the lab with a disability.  To date types of disabilities encountered include: physical mobility impairments (such as broken limbs, wheelchair requirements), health impairments  (including epilepsy, spina bifida, diabetes, and eating disorders), and a broad range of learning and attention disabilities (such as ADHD, dyslexia, and autism spectrum disorders). Hearing and sight issues are also a possibility but these have been less frequent than those just listed.

Practical considerations 2With an emphasis on safety and the achievement of positive and successful learning outcomes for all students, Veronica outlined the kinds of accommodations that are being made to include students with disabilities in laboratory practicals. This conversation really drove home for me the ‘high stakes’ nature of the issues here given the presence of sometimes dangerous chemicals. For example, there may need to be discussions about whether a 1:1 lab assistant may be needed, there is a definite need to discuss and agree a proposed approach with students, and there are clearly availability/cost questions involved. Other simpler measures include the possibility of using preferential seating to reduce the level of extraneous stimuli, the provision of support for frequent practice, and inclusion of brief breaks throughout the practical as appropriate. It was also fascinating to hear about creative and thoughtful efforts such as the creation of a wheelchair-friendly ‘lab coat’ that could be removed quickly and safely if needed.

Veronica disc flume hood
Veronica Dobbyn taking us on the lab tour

Looking at lab pedagogies more generally, Dr Emma Coyle, lecturer in organic and medicinal chemistry, reminded us about the distinctive focus of laboratory modules, emphasising that students are there primarily to develop practical skills but also transferable skills and knowledge. She explained how assessment of practical skills is obviously best carried out within the lab itself but it can be extremely logistically demanding to do so – particularly where there may be 80 students at a time. She talked us through an approach recently implemented in a third year module where lab demonstrators play a pivotal role in the process: in this case, demonstrators assess the pre-lab preparation/planning with the students and then monitor/provide ‘on the fly’ feedback on students’ live performance throughout the lab assessment itself. She put the success of this assessment down to the high level of advance preparation, interaction, training, and communication between the academic supervisor/module coordinator, the lab demonstrators, and the students. There is clearly a strong element of effective peer-based learning at work here too that is worth considering in relation to other disciplines.

Emma disc Summary
Dr Emma Coyle outlining ‘lessons learned’ from assessment in the lab

This is really just a very short snapshot of what was said (1 hour was not nearly enough time to discuss!). However I’m hoping that these practices will be captured in more depth and disseminated in future case studies. Serendipitously in recent days I also received a copy of a very current and highly readable literature review focused specifically on good practices of assessment and feedback in the practical environment: Embracing alternative formats, assessment strategies and digital technologies to revitalise practical sessions in Science & Health (Bree, 2018) is well worth downloading and reading, if you would like further evidence and inspiration on this subject. Next up in this blog I plan to continue the student-centred theme in a forthcoming post about ‘Teaching for the Realities of Student Life Today’. 


Bree, RT (2018) Embracing alternative formats, assessment strategies and digital technologies to revitalise practical sessions in Science & Health. Editors: Akande, A., Brazil, D., Doyle, D., Harding, N., Kavanagh, Y., Maguire M., and Mulvihill A., TEAM Project Publication, Dundalk. Retrieved from https://www.teachingandlearning.ie/publication/embracing-alternative-formats-assessment-strategies-and-digital-technologies-to-revitalise-practical-sessions-in-science-health/

Game On: Initial insights on gamification in practice

The teaching of research literacy has been known to suffer adversely from a lack of student engagement, high levels of learner anxiety, and a general failure to transfer learning across multiple situations. In attempting to address such challenges Dr Louise Hopper spoke at a recent ‘Sipping Point’ teaching conversation about how she incorporated gamified formative learning activities into a first year undergraduate psychological skills module. As part of the National Forum funded DSTEP project, Dr Hopper wanted to examine the impact of gamification on learning, motivation, and attitudes towards statistics.  She found that some activities were enjoyed by students and seemed to deliver good results, but that additional support (particularly on how to work in groups) appeared necessary among recent school leavers. The following is a short summary of the talk, the approach applied, and early findings.

Louise Presents at SP
Dr Louise Hopper is an Assistant Professor in the School of Nursing and Human Sciences at Dublin City University (DCU), lecturing primarily in Psychology Research Skills. Pictured here speaking at The Sipping Point January 2019.

Dr Hopper started out this teaching practice-sharing session with colleagues by emphasising what her gamification approach was NOT – it was not about ‘Serious Games’ or a fully immersive or role-play approach such as Second Life. Instead it was about leveraging the mechanics of games that students find engaging and attempting to use those to address known issues such as students’ frequently low perceptions of their own abilities.

Debunking myths
Some of the myths about gamification – and the focus of this project

This gamification approach was designed such that a knowledge check quiz, which students were required to complete individually, was made available after the 2 hour lecture each week of the project. Students were also required to complete a 2 hour lab practical each week. A core goal was to avoid the use of “quizzes for quizzes sake” and ensure that all quizzes had clearly associated learning objectives. Students were able to choose their preferred feedback option (eg personal and/or normative feedback), learn from hints, retry, and make multiple quiz attempts.

Students were also assigned to groups and the idea was that progress was to be made by unlocking levels of content – all students within a group had to complete the quiz and achieve a certain standard ( 80-100%) before the next group activity could be ‘unlocked’. The intention of the group work was to encourage collaboration and peer learning.

That was the plan, at least. However we heard how problems emerged in week 1 when it quickly became clear that some students seemed reluctant to do anything that didn’t contribute to marks and didn’t want to “have to” meet peers outside of class time. However attitudes seemed to improve markedly upon introduction of a badge and a group leaderboard in the subsequent session, which generated a major buzz in the room, somewhat to the lecturer’s surprise at first.

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Badges helped engagement with group activities

While the badges and leaderboard helped improve student engagement in some way, a number of other challenges became apparent over the course of implementing this approach:

  • There was insufficient time between the lecture and practical class for students to complete the individual task – this was due to timetabling challenges and is something Dr Hopper is going to try to address by enabling students to do more of the required work at home
  • There was a perception that weaker students and students who preferred to take time with each task struggled with the individual tasks and the time pressure to complete so that the next task for the group would be made available.
  • There was a general lack of motivation to work on the group tasks, perhaps as a result of a lack of knowledge in 1st years about how to work in groups (a familiar refrain in Sipping Point talks)

Based on this initial small-scale research, students seemed to respond very positively to the formative quizzes, the immediate feedback they received, the hints, and the badges. Initial feedback indicated that students wanted to do the quizzes ‘at home’ and do the group activities in class. They thoroughly enjoyed the ‘real world’ authentic links such as the behavioural profiling debates that emerged. The combination of gamified elements and psychology content seemed to go down well and students liked the idea of having control over their learning, including the freedom to make mistakes. Further developments on this project and its next phase will be released in due course. In the meantime, for more on the idea of ‘productive failure’ see the Innovating Pedagogy (2016) report referenced below (p16-18).

Positive Outcomes
Some learnings for Phase 2 of the project


Sharples, M., de Roock, R., Ferguson, R., Gaved, M., Herodotou, C., Koh, E., Kukulska-Hulme, A., Looi, C.K., McAndrew, P., Rienties, B. and Weller, M., 2016. Innovating pedagogy 2016: Open University innovation report 5.

The Inside Track on Outdoor Learning

I remember three things very vividly from my primary school education: on my first day of school, I remember feeling immensely proud of the little plasticine/márla ‘biscuits’ I made with the approval of my first ever teacher Mrs Kenny. A few years later, I remember the delight of learning the wonderfully atmospheric poem The Listeners by Walter de La Mare. And lastly, I cannot overstate the excitement of childhood memories from getting on the train in Galway and going to Dublin Zoo with my pals for a school tour. It is that last memory that leads me to this blog post where I’d like to share some thoughts on what I believe are the under explored opportunities of outdoor learning – not just for little ones but for much older students too.

At ‘The Sipping Point’ recently we ran a session on the great outdoors with a promise we would “experience some outdoor learning activities, and begin to appreciate the potential for learning in, through and about the outdoors”. So it was that on two days in January (one cold but crisp, the other cold and damp) we found ourselves gathered to set off on an ‘Outdoor Learning’ walk under the expert tutelage of Dr Orla Kelly, DCU School of STEM Education, Innovation & Global Studies.

So what exactly did we do, you may wonder? Here’s a very brief summary of what our group did in about 30 minutes:

  • We started off with everyone closing their eyes and identifying 10 sounds from the surrounding environment – conversations, distant and nearby traffic sounds, birdsong, the trundle of a pull-along suitcase, to name just some.
  • Then, keeping close to one another, we moved through park being asked to identify shapes we identified on our palms and then in nature.

  • Our next activity was what can only be described as a tree hugging exercise with a difference: we were asked to guide a colleague with his/her eyes closed towards a tree for them to explore with with their hands, keeping their eyes closed. During this process, the ‘guider’ was responsible for the safety of their peer,  ensuring the colleague did not stumble over twigs or walk into branches en route. The ‘hugger’ was then asked to identify the tree – which proved harder than it sounds, if one is deliberately thrown off the scent, I might add!

  • Next we gathered up a palette of nature’s bounty on a January day, sourcing different coloured and textured objects such as leaves, branches, and pine cones from the ground.
  • We finished with a short reflection on how we felt at the end of the walk, asked to write very briefly how we felt at that point. Words such as “alert” “happy”, “peaceful” “in touch with nature” – and yes “cold” – were all mentioned.

Applications of outdoor learning?

Back indoors we discussed the most striking aspects of the exercise, and if/how we might apply it elsewhere. Apart from the obvious novelty factor in doing something different with students, there seemed to be a number of promising opportunities for embracing the outdoors in teaching practice, including:

  1. As a team-building exercise – given the known challenges of group projects, we wondered if this type of experience might potentially help to prepare students for working in groups. At a minimum, it should help them get to know one another a little better.
  2. As a grounding/focusing exercise – the change of environment could potentially help to prepare students’ readiness for a task and declutter the brain from distractions. Notably none of us used our phones during the session – and didn’t even notice we hadn’t until after it was pointed out which says something these days.
  3. As a health and wellbeing enabler – the benefits of walking (versus sitting) probably need no further elaboration.
  4. As part of a commitment to sustainability which is at the core of the DCU Strategic Plan. As Orla described, it is important now more than ever that our students have opportunities to develop a love of nature, “as a precursor to pro-environmental attitudes and actions”.
  5. As a tool for reflection – speaking personally, this is where I see enormous potential as an academic developer. The session reminded me of an experience I had at a recent SEDA conference workshop on Walking as a Tool for Reflective Practice. Led by Susannah Quinsee and Anise Bullimore, this guided walk was particularly useful for the way it helped pairs of participants reflect on an experience “that went wrong” and learn from it for the future. Having seen first hand how the well the approach worked at a conference, and how useful it could be for encouraging conversations between colleagues, I have high hopes to give it a whirl at the next DCU Teaching and Learning Day.

If you are reading this and thinking it all seems rather simple, it is, and perhaps that is what makes it memorable. But isn’t that the beauty of it, if you have good reason and a suitable cohort to try it out? If you’d like further evidence, then check out the inclusion of outdoor learning in the Innovating Pedagogy 2019 report – the section on ‘Place-based Learning’ includes several examples and references if you wish to dig in to this topic further.


Ferguson, R., Coughlan, T., Egelandsdal, K., Gaved, M., Herodotou, C., Hillaire, G., Jones, D., Jowers, I., Kukulska-Hulme, A., McAndrew, P., Misiejuk, K., Ness, I. J., Rienties, B., Scanlon, E., Sharples, M., Wasson, B., Weller, M. and Whitelock, D. (2019). Innovating Pedagogy 2019: Open University Innovation Report 7. Milton Keynes: The Open University. Retrieved from https://iet.open.ac.uk/file/innovating-pedagogy-2019.pdf

Video in Teaching, Learning & Assessment: A Snapshot of Two Experiences

In the final countdown towards the Christmas holidays, we’ve had two surprisingly well attended Sipping Point sessions on creative uses of video in teaching, learning, and assessment. With video becoming such a ubiquitous educational tool, there seems to be strong interest out there in learning how to make it work best for both students and lecturers in various teaching contexts.  What follows is a short account of what was discussed at DCU St Patrick’s and Glasnevin campuses on Dec 17th and 18th.

As usual, the sessions kicked off with two speakers who kindly agreed to share their experiences. Dr Tish Balfe, from DCU School of Inclusive and Special Education, discussed how she employs video in two ways: to assess students’ application of course content in the classroom and also to support social constructivist, peer learning between student teachers. In the first case, Tish explained how the assignment requirement of uploading video clips allowed observation of how and to what level the students were actually applying course content within the primary classroom. Furthermore, the use of video to share practice during a research project supported self and group reflection on what students were observing. For example, while initially somewhat uncomfortable sharing clips of themselves, the students reported that they benefited and learned from gaining a very authentic visibility into others’ professional practice and style.

Tish Balfe at Gnvn - Advs of Video Slide
Dr Tish Balfe, DCU School of Inclusive and Special Education presenting at ‘The Sipping Point’

Dr Daniela Lehwaldt, DCU School of Nursing & Human Sciences, talked about her ongoing work on an Erasmus+ funded eCoNNECT project that involves the development of four videos for a blended learning module. Geared towards nursing students on practice placement, the project employed various novel technologies and drew on a range of expertise for filming and editing. For example H5P (interactive video) technology was used to create moments where students make ‘on the spot’ decisions about what they’re seeing within the videos. In this case a substantial team of people were involved in the production process, including professional actors and multimedia technology experts working alongside the academic lead.

Daniela Explains Script - cropped
Dr Daniela Lehwaldt explains the scripting process followed for the eConnect Project

These were both clearly very different approaches but I think it interesting to note that in both cases, the videos were being used as a spark or discussion point to generate deeper dialogue between students. Both approaches were being employed in a blended learning context, with students discussing the videos in more depth (particularly the challenging aspects) collectively as a group in a face-to-face environment. True to the form of the Sipping Point, several comments and questions were raised about the approaches shown, including:

  • Was the professional, team-based filming approach worth it? Or could simpler, less time-consuming and expensive approaches be employed? (Yes to both, seemed to be the consensus. Having funding to employ a professional team (particularly for acting and editing) worked well in this case but this does not preclude more basic approaches that do not require the services of a dedicated professional team.)
  • What are the ethical issues to consider around video creation and sharing? (Student ownership, control, and storage of the video are central to this, and of course, consent.)
  • Where is it possible to find the audio clips used for background noise, etc? (https://freesound.org/ was highly recommended as Creative Commons licensed database of sounds.)

I plan to share more video-related resources with the attendees soon, particularly in relation to reuse of existing Open Educational Resources (OERs) and further information about H5P. On a logistical note, it was difficult to know if this is a good or a bad time to run a teaching conversation session like this. Given that teaching at DCU just finished on Friday December 14th, attendance at the sessions could have gone one way or another – although very late in the semester, it turns out quite a number of people (29) were game to come along the week after teaching finished, which is something to keep in mind for future scheduling, whenever possible. To everyone who bravely presents at or comes along to the Sipping Point, or indeed reads this blog, may I take the opportunity to wish you a peaceful, restful Christmas and the best of health and happiness in 2019. I look forward to sharing more tea and company with you soon.

UDL at DCU – What’s happening on the ground?

At our most recent Sipping Point, the focus was on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a means of positively impacting the learning experience of all students at DCU. Karina Curley (Student Support & Development), Carol Ellis (Disability Officer) and Karen Buckley of the Teaching Enhancement Unit (TEU) ran two very well-attended sessions that highlighted principles, survey findings, and forthcoming initiatives aimed at informing and supporting staff in this area.  The following account summarises and reflects on some of the points that were made as the conversation unfolded.

The introductory presentation started out with some definitions of UDL including one that described it as ‘An approach to teaching that consists of the proactive design and use of inclusive instructional strategies that benefit a broad range of learners, including students with disabilities’ (Scott, McGuire & Foley, 2003). Setting the scene for the session, it was also acknowledged that while nothing can ever be truly ‘universal’ (Mace, 1998) cited in McGuire et al., we can usually improve on the things we design to make them more usable.

The presenters went on to discuss the work done by University College Dublin (UCD) in formulating ‘9 principles of Universal Design for Instruction’, giving specific examples of how certain principles could be realised in teaching. For example, it was suggested that the principle of Equitable Use could potentially be furthered by consistently making slides available to students before class. In another example, the principle of Perceptible Information could be achieved through efforts to create more readable slides via usage of a sans serif font at a minimum font size 24 pt.

But while few would argue with the thinking that UDL is, in general, a good and positive ideal to consider, the purpose of this session was to unpack how the approach might be supported and implemented in teaching practice. In the conversations that emerged during the open floor discussion, the following comments and questions were made:

St Pat’s Session

  • Is the use of UDL-related terminology a barrier and might it be preventing staff from engaging with the concept (despite the fact that they may actually be adhering to many of its principles in practice)?
  • Is UDL perceived as another, potentially onerous, expectation to be added to an already hectic teaching load? The importance about achieving buy-in from staff was made several times and the point was made that it should be recognised as something that is part of good teaching rather than somehow interpreted as a separate niche activity that is relevant only to certain types of students.
  • Could publication of marking descriptors represent a ‘quick win’ for staff in furthering the reach of flexible assessment? One of the attendees wondered if that might spur students to question/appeal the marks they received which opened a further conversation about the need to develop robust, clear, and inclusive marking criteria.
  • Are many problems due to the restrictions of the teaching space, for example the use of rooms/theatres that are simply not appropriate to the class size or intended pedagogy? The limitations of such spaces was highlighted as a significant issue for some of our staff (e.g. visually impaired or wheelchair using lecturers) as well as students.
  • The need to build in UDL principles across the curriculum was mentioned – the need for programme level (not module level) thinking was emphasised.
  • A number of attendees mentioned the value of developing practical, achievable case studies to highlight what people are doing in their practice with respect to UDL – this was highlighted as something that would potentially be of use/value to staff who want to take these principles on board.
  • Another tool suggested was some kind of checklist that enables staff to evaluate their courses against key UDL standards – as well as identifying strengths, this could help to target areas for improvement. It was emphasised that some form of scaffolding would be needed to exemplify what it means to make progress in each of the 9 principles highlighted above.

Some Participants at Sipping Point Glasnevin UDL
Some of the participants at the Glasnevin Sipping Point Session on UDL

Glasnevin Session

The discussion at Glasnevin brought up a number of similar themes. The UDL checklist suggestion was reiterated again, to help aid understanding of what needs to be done with respect to fonts, labels, subtitles etc. Furthermore:

  • It was acknowledged that “withholding” of resources/notes was happening, generally with the intent of encouraging students to attend lectures in person. This led to a discussion about whether or not it is advisable to do this. The following guidance from University College London (UCL) about making lecture materials available in advance offers several pointers to help you evaluate that approach from both staff and student perspectives.
  • Attendees present from DCU Open Education made the point that their team commits to making all course materials available online from September each year. Acknowledging the high workload involved in making these resources and activities available upfront, the freeing benefits of this approach over the remainder of the year were also noticed.
  • The importance of offering a variety of assessment methods (e.g. an introductory video as an alternative to an in-person presentation) was underlined. However, feedback from the staff survey indicated that providing these important resources requires significant time investment in terms of setting up flexible assessments, and this needs to be recognised when measuring academic outputs. “The investment can often go unrecognised compared to publishing articles etc and therefore this needs more encouragement from the academic system.”
  • The need to better understand assessment equivalences was mentioned. A starting point for exploration and further discussion at School level may be the UCD guide on assessment equivalences (Galvin, Noonan & O’Neill, 2012).

These sessions highlighted forthcoming activities that should be of interest to staff seeking to inform their knowledge and practice of inclusive approaches – watch out for a series of student panel discussions and a visit from UDL expert Dr Abigail Moriarty of De Montfort University in February 2019.  The Sipping Point sessions culminated with an open invitation to join the UDL in DCU Working Group to move ahead and act on the important points raised.

Karen Speaking at UDL
Karen Buckley of the TEU presenting at the UDL-focused Sipping Point. Karina Curley (Student Support & Development) & Carol Ellis (Disability Office) collaborated on this presentation.


Galvin, A., Noonan, E. and O’Neill, G. (2012) Assessment: Assessment Workload and Equivalences. UCD Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from https://www.ucd.ie/t4cms/UCDTLA0038.pdf

McGuire, J. M., Scott, S. and Shaw, S. F. (2006) ‘Universal design and its application in educational environments’. Remedial and Special Education 27(3), pp. 166-175).

Padden, L., O’Connor, J., Barrett, T., (2016). Universal Design for Curriculum Design: Case Studies from UCD.

Scott, S., McGuire, J. M. and Foley, T. (2003) ‘Universal design for instruction: a framework for anticipating and responding to disability and other diverse learning needs in the college classroom’ Equity & Excellence in Education, 36(1), pp. 40-49.

Making Group Work ‘Work’: Conversations on a theme

This month at The Sipping Point  our teaching conversations focused on the theme of ‘Making Group Work ‘Work’’. This particular topic attracted the most people yet to the Sipping Point so for those who couldn’t be there,  I think it’s well worth reflecting on some of the points that emerged.

At St Patrick’s campus, the session opened up with the irrepressible Martin Molony (DCU School of Communications) asking us to consider common group work stereotypes. No doubt familiar to many of those in the audience, these ‘types’ ran the gamut from the uber enthusiasts to the seemingly work shy. We were presented with the common challenges of group work which included varying abilities, varying skillsets, varying motivations, and varying commitment levels. In a nice about-turn of transforming a negative into a positive, we were asked to encourage students to think about these challenges as potential opportunities and indeed enablers of successful group work.

Group Work Session St Pats
Some of the attendees at the DCU St Patrick’s Sipping Point

The inspiring Susan Pike (DCU School of STEM Education, Innovation & Global Studies)  walked us through several examples of different types of group work projects she has been running in geography teacher education. These ranged from projects that had small groups of students getting to socialise and know each other through completing a local field trip, to class-wide activities that got everyone engaged in a collective, high-energy buzz about the posters they created. The confidence-building effects of these activities proved a wonderful counterpoint to all the negative ‘stuff’ we tend to hear about group work in HE, reminding us of why it’s so important to include it in curricula in the first place. Luckily we had a number of geography specialism students at the session to help us see things from the student perspective. The big takeaways that stood out for me were that:

  • Students enormously valued time in class to do work on their group projects – this request seemed all the more pertinent these days when so many students are working and/or commuting
  • Students strongly preferred to self-select their own group members (well these 4th years did…but staff present agreed that there are times when ‘mixing it up’ is beneficial for students getting to know each other)
  • Students seem to meet up face to face generally – in the follow-on discussion, we wondered if perhaps they are missing an opportunity to meet online? Is there more us lecturers should be doing to encourage that, once students have met each other and are comfortable with the idea?

At the Glasnevin campus, the conversations continued, with the following highlights:

Sipping Point Glasnevin Group Work
The lively discussions continued at the Glasnevin Campus

  • A ‘cake’ metaphor offered a novel way to describe certain group work dynamics: in Martin’s experience, students tended to want to slice the cake via individual contributions, whereas most lecturers are interested in helping students work together to bake the cake.
  • The importance of discussing proposed group work with students and explaining the rationale behind it was strongly emphasised. This advice is very much reflected in the excellent resource developed by Dundalk IT which offers an assessed group work framework for programme teams and lecturers to plan and manage their group work in more effective ways. A paper by Davies (2009) was cited as another practical and research-informed resource to explore. There was another shout out too for the super work done by Dónal Mulligan on developing a Google Forms-based peer review system within group work. You can read more about that in his EdTech 2018 presentation.
  • Various approaches on group ‘selection’ were discussed, such as the pros and cons of empowering students to select their own members versus the perhaps unexpected benefits that randomisation might provide. One attendee talked about how her students gave positive feedback welcoming random selection of group members. Another suggestion shared was the idea of allowing students in a group to select one friend that they know and are comfortable with, while the lecturer identifies the other pair to work on the project.
  • To help promote group accountability, based on positive experience, it was also suggested that we encourage students to adopt typical professional behaviours such as agenda setting and minute taking.

We could have talked for hours and if nothing else, this session absolutely confirmed that those attending are passionate about trying to make group work a success within their disciplines. Somewhat off point, but interesting nonetheless, I think it worth mentioning that it was noted that this topic attracted an almost exclusively female attendance. Why is it that group work (and the management of group work) seemed to attract so many women but so few men? Was it purely coincidental on this occasion or just a topic that seemed to speak more to women for some reason? Let’s regroup to consider that one another time, perhaps.


Davies, W. M. (2009) ‘Groupwork as a form of assessment: common problems and recommended solutions’, Higher Education, 58(4), pp. 563–584.

Who Shares Wins: 5 Good Reasons to Take to the T&L Stage

As the so-called “quiet time” of the academic year draws to a close, and the chilly winds of autumn snap at inappropriately sandal-clad feet, thoughts turn to the upcoming semester.

A big gig for our unit in September is the Dublin City University Teaching & Learning (T&L) Day, an annual conference where up to 100 staff members converge to seek inspiration about effective teaching and assessment practice. Like similar events at many institutions this provides a valuable forum for staff to share their experiences and knowledge about teaching. So if you’ve been thinking about responding to a call but are still somewhat ‘undecided’, here are five reminders about the sometimes forgotten benefits of sharing that might spur you on to proceed:

1. The “This worked, it really worked” Effect

There is something incredibly refreshing (dare I say it heartwarming?) about paying forward good ideas, particularly if they solve problems that you know many of your colleagues also struggle with. Who has not lamented a disappointing lack of class discussion or frustrating attitudes to group work, for example? What works for you is often good for your colleagues and we’ve seen several examples of this at gatherings over the years. Sometimes these suggestions involve technology e.g.  highly usable peer review tools or effective uses of audio feedback. But sometimes they don’t require any tech at all: simple but powerful ideas such as getting students to stand more closely in groups (rather than in circles) was one proven technique for supporting active class participation that went down a storm last year. Hearing a colleague from your institution talk about what worked for them is one of the most persuasive forms of professional learning there is.

2. The “It seemed like a good idea at the time” Lesson

Ah yes, the innovation that didn’t quite go according to plan. It takes real bravery to admit professionally that the inspired plan to enhance student engagement did not succeed as one might have hoped. True, you might have learned from the class, the assessments, and the subsequent student evaluations that something was amiss. But as well as reflecting on it yourself, have you ever experienced the cathartic effect that sharing the experience with colleagues can have? Instead of the misplaced tendency to think it was entirely your fault (an impression that student evaluations can all-too-easily promote), your colleagues could help to put it into perspective and give you constructive feedback that might encourage you to make adjustments, reconsider your audience, and perhaps try again. So when it feels right for you, share those stories of experimentation and even failure, please, we can all learn from them.

3. The “I’m really not doing so bad at all” Insights

Closely related to 2 is the idea that oftentimes we can be our own harshest critics. It is also possible, however, to experience a moment of quiet triumph when you realise you are actually more experienced/creative/technologically-adept than you had given yourself credit for. One way to achieve this is to share your work with colleagues and let them know what you are doing  in the classroom and/or lecture hall. Quite often the feedback and questions you will hear after you’ve presented will highlight that not everyone is doing what you’re doing and your unique insights are of real value to fellow professionals.

4. The “I have to get this on paper” Opportunity

Have there ever been times when you’ve missed and regretted a promising opportunity because you have not yet written your ideas up? The blank page fills many of us with dread so any chance to describe your teaching approaches and position them within the literature could also prove very useful elsewhere. Getting an abstract or proposal in for an event at your local institution could be the vital first step towards initiating a collaborative research project, a publication opportunity or a response to a funding call. Carpe Diem, get started, and you are very unlikely to regret the time spent.

5. The “Who are all these people?!” Moment

Your local T&L event offers an opportunity to meet and get to know your teaching colleagues better. There seem to be relatively few chances to do this in higher education, which is one of the reasons why The Sipping Point was set up at DCU. Sometimes informal learning happens over coffee or lunch conversations on the day. It can also come about through follow-up emails and approaches by colleagues afterwards. Whatever way it occurs, the sense of community and solidarity that emerges from a common understanding of challenges (and indeed solutions) can foster connections that stretch well beyond the day itself. On that note, put your best foot forward and get your thinking from your head to the page at the next possible opportunity.

If this post has whetted your appetite to either share your practice or attend the event itself, make sure you sign up for DCU T&L day today: https://www.eventbrite.ie/e/dcu-teaching-learning-day-2018-tickets-49086468950