Lisa Gray (PebblePad): "The design behind the learning or assessment opportunity is key for an excellent learning experience.".

Interview with Lisa Gray from PebblePad
Interview with Lisa Gray from PebblePad

1. Considering your experience of more than two decades within education, most of them at Jisc, what do you think are the biggest challenges the industry is facing at the moment?

As we emerge from the emergency response to the pandemic, universities will need time and space (which is a challenge) to reflect on what has worked well, and what hasn’t. The pandemic accelerated the pace of digital change, and now that we’re out of the initial crisis, we have a unique opportunity to build on those approaches that have truly enhanced, and not just replaced, learning and assessment practices. Understandably, not all of the emergency response was necessarily an improved experience for students as we sought to provide alternatives at short notice, for example much online learning was content centric. This meant although essential knowledge was accessible, those opportunities to ensure students were engaging in meaningful ways with that content, their peers, and teaching staff may not have been. So now is the time to learn the lessons from that experience, and further explore approaches that make the most of what digital can offer rooted in good learning and assessment design. To build connections, community and belonging, that best prepare students for their studies, and make space for the development and authentic assessment of broader skills that prepare learners for a 21st century workplace. We also know that both students and staff have been under great pressure during the emergency response, and many of our conversations have highlighted the exhaustion across the sector. So a focus on wellbeing, and perhaps a period of recovery and reflection is required before rushing too fast into deciding on the future of learning, teaching and assessment for our universities. Already we have seen some excellent approaches to supporting students with induction and orientation through PebblePad, not only into the first year but also preparing students as they move between years. These are the practices we need to learn from and continue to build in even if a return to campus is the goal.

2. How will you tackle those challenges at PebblePad and what will be your role in that process?

To some extent those challenges are being tackled by our customers who have created amazing ways of working with the PebblePad Learning Journey Platform. Part of my job will be to connect the community to those examples, but also to connect those practices to existing research and frameworks that articulate what ‘good’ learning, teaching and assessment looks like, to help universities identify the practices we know to be effective. For example, one of my recent projects at Jisc, working with Doctor Gill Ferrell, was revisiting the well-proven principle-led approach to assessment redesign. The updated principles have now been launched and provide a useful synthesis of research into effective assessment design. By exploring PebblePad practices against these principles, and other similar frameworks, I’m hoping will inspire others to see what is possible and connect into practices that are most relevant to them.

“A successful learning process can happen in any mode of delivery, there are wonderful examples of good learning and assessment in face-to-face, blended, hybrid or full digitised formats. What is key is the design behind that learning or assessment opportunity.” Lisa Gray says

3. As a learning, teaching and assessment specialist, do you believe in fully digitisation or hybrid models for a successful learning process?

A successful learning process can happen in any mode of delivery, there are wonderful examples of good learning and assessment in face-to-face, blended, hybrid or full digitised formats. What is key is the design behind that learning or assessment opportunity. So the question should be, what are the affordances digital can offer, and how do we use those opportunities to design an excellent learning experience in whatever mode of delivery is preferred? For example, we know digital approaches can support students to reflect on their knowledge and experiences, surface the process and not just the product of learning, draw together and present evidence from a range of sources, and engage in authentic tasks and assessments.

4. Clearly, Higher Education is transforming at an impressive pace of adoption of EdTech solutions. What are the main differences between HE and other educational stages such as elementary schools and primary schools?

By harnessing technology, universities have a lot more freedom to dictate the design and assessment of their learning opportunities, which provides much opportunity for innovation. University education has traditionally been knowledge-centric, but this is shifting as the recognition of the importance of the role of higher education in developing broader skills, aligned to the need to develop career-ready graduates, has grown. And our understanding of what ‘good’ learning, teaching and assessment has also grown. For example through Professor David Nicol’s work which highlights the importance of developing self-regulating learners, and the value of learning activities such as self and peer review in achieving that. And that some of our traditional assessment approaches don’t best prepare learners for the ways that they will continue to develop and be assessed through life.

5. Are educational institutions ready for the digital transformation? Which segments are more affected by this new paradigm: staff, teachers, students…? What is the solution to this imbalance?

Universities are increasingly looking strategically at digital transformation, which includes enabling all areas of the business including leadership, the digital and physical infrastructure, and all of the people within it, ensuring all staff and students have the digital capability to thrive in a digital world. So no staff and students will be untouched by this transformation. There is no one way that this transformation will happen, the very ubiquity of digital in our lives means that many are more capable and confident – but also many people require support to adapt to these shifting contexts. Accessibility, inclusion and wellbeing for all are key factors here to ensure all are benefitting (and are not excluded) from the affordances digital can offer. Digital is both an enabler, and a skill for life. It should be developed through appropriate and purposeful application in and beyond the curriculum to ensure success.

6. In terms of market growth, what are PebblePad's plans and expectations? Any new regions that are growing their interest in Educational Technologies?

We are experts in higher education, and there remains ample opportunity to extend our work within the UK, and Australia where there is already forward-looking practice, but also to expand our operations in Canada where there is significant interest in our approach. We’re seeing a surge in interest as institution's start to look beyond the traditional learning management system (LMS) for ways to enhance learning, teaching and assessment.

"Clear leadership is key, as ensuring key stakeholders (including students) are involved in the decision-making and learning design process."

7. What would be your piece of advice for those universities or vocational training institutions that are thinking about adopting EdTech solutions like PebblePad? What steps should be taken by them for a successful implementation?

I think it’s a real challenge for universities to select and choose the most appropriate digital solutions for them. It’s crucial that any technology adoption is preceded by a clear vision and shared understanding of the requirements (and intended benefits) of any digital solution. ‘Tech for tech’s sake’ is never going to deliver. Once the right solution is in place, a successful implementation needs everyone to be on board. Clear leadership is key, as ensuring key stakeholders (including students) are involved in the decision-making and learning design process. There are many excellent well-documented approaches to structuring meaningful conversations with curriculum teams that place pedagogy and people at the centre of any course redesign. At PebblePad we have a well-proven approach to implementation, based on these well-evidenced methodologies, that places these important conversations at the heart of the process with any new customer.

About the author

Lisa Gray

Lisa is Learning, Teaching and Assessment Senior Consultant at PebblePad. She has more than two decades of experience in the sector, 17 years with renowned digital solutions and research provider Jisc

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