My first week experiences of Surviving Disruptive Technologies MOOC

I’ve started my second MOOC through Coursera, herein labelled as #sdtmooc, which is its putative Twitter hashtag.
This is a significantly different experience from #edcmooc, the University of Edinburgh course I took previously. That was a constructivist learning experience, with a core of highly engaged participants who met and discussed virtually outside of the Coursera discussion forum ecosystem. This isn’t.
What follows now will appear critical – let me be clear, any criticisms are not of the course leader, or indeed of the content, more about the way in which the course is set up to run.


The course is written by Henry Lucas of University of Maryland, and would appear to be based on his textbook on the subject “The Search for Survival”.

Topics covered so far include the survivor model, the innovator’s dilemma, sustaining and disruptive technologies, the box score, organisations, and the demise of Kodak. This will be followed by lectures on the demise of Blockbuster and Borders. The minute that Clay Shirky’s phrase “Napster moment” is used is the time I will quit the course.

Structure and delivery

For #sdtmooc each week is divided into two classes, each of which has 4 short video lectures associated with it. Which when you join then together ,make 2 individual 1 hour lectures, so this doesn’t seem to be doing anything to challenge any educational paradigm. Each video lecture has a single multiple choice question embedded into it to check understanding. Or at least to check if you have been listening for the previous 8 minutes.

The video lectures consist of PowerPoint slides, with a talking head in the bottom corner, and some annotations made to slides as they are delivered. Not wildly exciting.

At the end of each class, participants are asked to use the discussion forums, to both start discussions and comment on those of others. One activity was to list your top 3 technical innovations of the last 25 years, with the reasons why chosen, and then to comment on the suggestions of others. A lot of participants identified the internet. This clearly ignores the fact it is over 25 years old, and their view of it was wholly utopian (shades of #edcmooc creeping in!).

As so often, I found the level of discussion disappointing and intellectually naive. But I accept that this is criticism of myself – I have no way of knowing the previous experience or expertise of other participants.

Initial Impressions

Honestly? The subject matter is interesting, and when we are hearing all the time that MOOCs are a disruptive technology that will affect Higher Education, this would seem to be a relevant course to take.

But I could have learned as much by reading the book. The course so far offers no more than a distributed version of a slightly dull traditional lecture course. The discussion forums have yet to take off with any detailed critique or analysis. And Twitter – well maybe I was spoiled with the way in which participants in #edcmooc used it, but so far there appears to be little happening to excite the twitterati!

I’ll carry on for another week, downloading the PowerPoint files for later reference.

Planning my Easter Reading

I may be away from the university for a while over Easter, but like most with an academic background, I find it difficult to switch off. I’m now compiling my holiday reading.

Starting with “Clever” by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, it’ll be an interesting follow up to “Why Should Anyone be Led byYou?”


Secondly, this by Evgeny Morozov.


And finally, a bit of research from CIPD into into employee voice and social media.


MOOCs – inclusive for consumers, but not providers?

Yet another blog post on MOOCs I’m afraid.

This time though, some thoughts about how we might go about distributing our own materials. In the earlier post where I cite the thoughts of Martin Hall, VC of Salford, some good reasons for going down the MOOC route start to crystallise, particularly around marketing the institution and possibly using the development of open educational resources as a driver to significantly change our teaching and learning practice, both on campus and in partner institutions.

However, if we want to “do a MOOC”, we have to question how we could do it.

Firstly we might consider our own VLE platform. The plus points here are that academic staff know how to use it. Err, that’s about it. We’d need to see if it could be scaled to deal with large numbers of enrolments and logins. Since we link it to our student record system, would we expect that too to deal with massive enrolments?

So – the enrolment issue may be a problem. Our second option is to develop our own software. We would have the expertise in house to do this, but we would have to ask the question – why would we invent something, when big commercial companies have already entered the market.

So the third option is to partner with one of the existing companies  They offer the appropriate software  they can deal with the enrolment issues, and might even share some of the money with participating universities in the future.

So where’s the problem? Quite simply, the main MOOC providers are very choosy about who hey want to partner with.

In the UK, FutureLearn (the MOOC venture led by Open University has recently appointed Simon Nelson as CEO. In this weeks Times Higher Education, it reports that:

Key to the success of the project is reputation, Nelson emphasises. Of Futurelearn’s 17 university partners, almost all are in the top 400 of theTimes Higher Education World University Rankings, while more than half are members of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. “We were inundated with requests to join,”

To select university partners, Nelson drew on “a range of league tables, in order to help us identify which were consistently ranked as the top institutions in the UK”.

However, he denies that this elitist focus will simply allow prestigious institutions to enhance their reputation and potentially threaten the existence of lesser-ranked universities.

The door to Futurelearn is not closed, Nelson insists, noting that more university partners will be announced in the near future.

So at the moment, the UK company does not look like possible partner – their website certainly makes it clear that they ae not looking for new educational providers.

What about the US companies? An article in Inside Higher Ed implies that Coursera and others are similarly elitist.

The contract that Coursera uses with its partners says that it :

commits the company to offer “only content provided by top-quality educational institutions.” To Coursera that means it will “provide only content provided by universities that are a member of the Association of American Universities” or universities outside of North America that are “generally regarded ‘top five’ universities within any country in any given year.”

EdX, the company set up by MIT:

“hosts classes only from 12 universities, including its two founders, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. But edX’s exclusivity was widely perceived, while Coursera’s preferences were less clear. Seven of edX’s nine North American universities are in the AAU.”

So this might be a problem – the companies currently leading the revolution in MOOCs are quite clearly supporting the more elite universities – and you can understand maybe why they do so, because of the perceived advantages of receiving some kind of education form a prestigious institution.

However, it means that the bulk of universities in the US, the UK and elsewhere are frozen out of the development. If they decide that delivering material through a MOOC is part of their well developed and understood business plan, they are going to have to urn elsewhere for the technical solution.






HEFCE Grant Allocation for 2013-14

HEFCE has announced it’s annual funding allocations for 2013-14. These show the amount of teaching grant, research grant and HEIF income to universities. Full details are on the HEFCE website, and there is a related article in the Higher.

From the Times Higher article:

“The drop in total grant is explained by the fact that in 2013-14, another cohort of “old regime” students part-funded by direct teaching grant will have graduated, to be replaced by more “new regime” students for whom funding is largely routed via tuition fees.

Universities with a greater number of longer courses (and therefore more old regime students), high-cost subjects (where teaching grant remains in place) and higher levels of research funding are experiencing gentler declines in their direct funding.

Institutions without those characteristics are being hit by bigger reductions, including Leeds Metropolitan University (down 41.2 per cent for 2013-14) and the University of Sunderland (a decline of 40 per cent).”

The decrease in grant for Staffordshire is 32.9% – a fairly high figure, but to be expected with our lower levels of research funding, fewer high cost subjects and few longer courses.

The table below shows the 40 universities with the biggest reductions in recurrent grant.

Institution % Change in funding total recurrent grant
Teesside University -42.6 20,947,116
Leeds Metropolitan University -41.2 25,817,591
Arts University Bournemouth -41.1 3,893,998
Leeds College of Art -40.7 1,697,118
University of Cumbria -40.6 6,984,019
University of Sunderland -40 15,041,844
University for the Creative Arts -39 9,256,743
Newman University -38.6 2,471,293
York St John University -37 4,628,242
Plymouth University -36.8 39,609,200
Edge Hill University -36.6 11,216,315
Bishop Grosseteste University -36.4 1,795,158
The Open University -36.2 97,160,114
University Campus Suffolk -36.2 5,718,356
Leeds Trinity University -36.2 2,439,040
Canterbury Christ Church University -35.9 13,401,169
University of Worcester -35.6 8,187,428
University of Huddersfield -35 23,819,611
Bath Spa University -34.6 8,273,674
University College Birmingham -34.6 5,430,213
University of Greenwich -34.5 28,250,751
University of West London -34.5 10,919,907
University of Winchester -34 5,198,710
Liverpool Hope University -33.5 7,319,021
University of the West of England -32.9 30,209,293
Staffordshire University -32.9 24,109,001
University of Lincoln -32.8 17,494,694
Northumbria University -32.6 29,730,689
University of Chichester -32.6 5,764,359
Birmingham City University -32.5 20,510,786
Bucks New University -32.4 9,370,584
University of Bedfordshire -32.1 15,425,311
Norwich University of the Arts -32.1 3,195,243
University of Derby -31.8 18,815,636
University of Bolton -31.6 9,355,420
University of Northampton -31.1 12,616,610
University of Wolverhampton -30.9 24,897,161
University of Westminster -30.5 28,604,300
University of Chester -30.5 13,123,170

I completed a MOOC – and so did the VC of Salford

Well, after 5 weeks of some interesting reading, writing, and occasional frustration, I completed my MOOC through Coursera.

This is what I got at the end of it:
Interesting to note the disclaimers at the bottom of the certificate:


Interestingly, Professor Martin Hall, VC of Salford University has completed the same MOOC, and has provided a very thoughtful blog about both his experiences, and his views on the MOOC phenomenon.

He asks how MOOCs might acts as a disruption and provides three points of perspective, and three of possibility:

  1. Time on Task – he estimates that based on the time needed to complete this MOOC and relating this to credits, you would need to complete 60 equivalent MOOCs per year for 3 years to cover a full undergraduate degree programme
  2. Pre-requisites- building up a full suite of MOOCs to degree equivalence will probably require the re-invention of the conventions of successive years of study, and of entry requirements in the form of prior completion of lower-level MOOC
  3. Validation – the only validation on this MOOC was online acceptance of an honor code. If MOOCs are to provide credit with any currency, then this will have to change.

The three possibilities identified are:

  1. MOOCs are a smart marketing move for other courses
  2. They could finish off the lecture as a form of conveying information, and the teacher becomes an expert guide in a world of abundance rather than a lecturer passing down wisdom from the podium.
  3. Pre-registration sign-ups for MOOC-like taster courses may become an element in pathways into formal learning. He makes the point that a lot of metrics about his learning behaviour will now be available to Coursera! I guess they know all about me too!

So the implications for us?

If we are to “get into MOOCs”, we need to have a clear idea of what we are trying to achieve. how we would measure success? What software we use, whether we develop our own or use an existing platform? Can we use the lessons learnt to redevelop the way in which we approach our on campus teaching – could this finally be a chance to move away from the oft criticised (but still delivered) 1 hour lecture, and use academic staff more as guides to learning? Could it provide better, and different support to our students in partner colleges?

There are challenges to be brought about by the ready and well curated access to information and learning, I still don’t think that the changes will be an end to universities we just need to redefine what our role will become.

Contact Hours and Student Engagement

A piece in this week’s Higher is worth a look. Graham Gibbs is writing on the usefulness of specific kinds of contact and the learning gains that can be achieved.

Much of this is based on his recently republished paper “Dimensions of Quality”, previously referenced in this blog.

I don’t ink the outcomes should be any surprise, but it’s always useful to see the assertions backed by research.

I think the key issue raised is about how we communicate to students, and their parents, about how higher education actually works. The simplistic measure of percentage scheduled teaching time publicised in Key Information Sets is at best unhelpful, and at worst, deliberately misleading.

Should UCAS publish application numbers to universities?

Today’s Guardian provides a short article on the  decision of UCAS – influenced by universities – not to publish detailed information on the number of applications to individual institutions, not even to ministers.

The argument is that making such information available early in the recruitment cycle could potentially destabilise a university with low application numbers. This could eventually become a self fulfilling prophecy.

Shouting from the safety of Oxford et al are those who say we must tell everyone what is going on in detail with application data, so that no one sends their children to possibly failing institutions.

Matt Robb of Parthenon Consulting is quoted as predicting:

“that struggling universities will be looking to sell off key assets, such as their business schools, in order to cope with lost fees that could run to the tens of millions. He has already received telephone calls from some institutions wanting to discuss possible mergers.

“In the last six to 12 months there has been a sea change in universities’ willingness to pursue radical new options, including merger and private investment,” he says. “It is quite extraordinary how quickly some institutions have broadened their thinking.”

He adds: “It is now clear that you’ve got to be distinctive and you’ve got to think about the quality and value of what you offer. People have been talking about this in the sector for a long time, but almost no one took it on board. Being a bog-standard general university is no longer enough.”

Some of the last paragraph links to my previous post on the recent IPPR paper, and the need for universities to create a distinctive identity.

An avalanche is coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead

An essay by the by the Institute of Public Policy Research, a progressive UK  thinktank was published today, which aims to provoke creative dialogue and challenge complacency in HE institutions about the future of higher education.


From the executive summary:

“This report challenges every player in the system to act boldly.

Citizens need to seize the opportunity to learn and re-learn throughout their lives. They need to be ready to take personal responsibility both for themselves and the world around them. Every citizen is a potential student and a potential creator of employment.

University leaders need to take control of their own destiny and seize the opportunities open to them through technology – Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for example – to provide broader, deeper and more exciting education. Leaders will need to have a keen eye toward creating value for their students.

Each university needs to be clear which niches or market segments it wants to serve and how. The traditional multipurpose university with a combination of a range of degrees and a modestly effective research programme has had its day.

The traditional university is being unbundled.

Some will need to specialise in teaching alone – and move away from the traditional lecture to the multi-faced teaching possibilities now available:

•the elite university

•the mass university

•the niche university

•the local university

•the lifelong learning mechanism.”


There are three fundamental challenges facing systems all round the world:

1. How can universities and new providers ensure education for employability?

A great example of the future is the excellent employability centre at Exeter University in the UK which offers all students sustained advice and promotes volunteering as well as academic success. Given the rising cost of degrees, the threat to the market value of degrees and the sheer scale of both economic change and unemployment, this is a vital and immediate challenge.

2. How can the link between cost and quality be broken?

At present, the global rankings of universities in effect equate inputs with output. Only universities which have built up vast research capacity and low student:teacher ratios can come out on top. Yet in the era of modern technology, when students can individually and collectively create knowledge themselves, outstanding quality without high fixed costs is both plausible and desirable. New entrants are effectively barred from entry. A new university ranking is required.

3. How does the entire learning ecosystem need to change to support alternative providers and the future of work?

A new breed of learning providers is emerging that emphasise learning by practice and mentorship. Systematic changes are necessary to embedding these successful companies on a wider scale.

The key messages from the report to every player in the system are that the new student consumer is king and standing still is not an option. Embracing the new opportunities set out here may be the only way to avoid the avalanche that is coming”

As with so many reports of this nature, it will contain the usual amount of hyperbole, but the authors make it clear that they don;t have all the answers – they are just identifying many of the questions and possible options and ideas for institutions.

The idea that ” traditional multipurpose university with a combination of a range of degrees and a modestly effective research programme has had its day” resonates – for this and other universities to succeed n future, we will need to much more clearly identify and articulate what it is we do that is different, and why learners should come to us.

A critical reading of the paper is published by David Kernohan, on his blog. Many of the issues that David raises, particularly in regard to the authors being from Pearson, and therefore possibly having a vested interest, are worth taking on board.

Further comments on the paper can be found on the blog of Ferdinand von Prondzynski, the principal of Robert Gordon University. He writes:

“The essay does have a number of interesting insights, and is worth reading. But its five ‘models’ are not revolutionary – they (or something like them) are long in place, and it is not difficult to attach a model number to almost any existing university you might care to mention. The problem is that, as listed, they express a hierarchy, and indeed a hierarchy both of esteem and of resourcing. The trick in establishing a new higher education model that is not Harvard-like but is recognised as representing strong value and educational quality is to show it as exercising thought leadership. That is the essence of a different new university model.

Unlike the authors of this report, I don’t think there is an avalanche coming that is materially different from past changes, in the sense that fairly significant change has been a feature of higher education for the past four decades or more. I also suspect that some of the current ‘radical’ moves, including many of the MOOCs (a name that increasingly irritates me), will eventually flop because they lack a business case and because the pedagogy has not been as well thought out as some may think. But I do believe that there is scope for a radical new university model that can challenge the traditional elite. That is the quest I would like to be on.”


It is also noteworthy the number of times that Thomas Friedman  – famous for the golden arches theory of conflict prevention – is referenced in the essay, an interesting choice of writer to be used by a left leaning thinktank.





Grade Point Averages- is it time for a change?

A comment piece in this week’s Higher from John Raftery, PVC at Oxford Brooke’s, discussing this decision to move to Grade Point Averages as well as degree classifications.

He provides a clear rationale of moving to such a system, and using all of a student’sperfromance to provide a final grade. This will have the impact of making first year modules possibly more meaningful, as I have heard students query the point of grading the first year. It also gives a much more granular scale and clearer differentiation between individual student performances.

He does identify disadvantages though:

There are other shortcomings which GPA shares with the honours degree classification system. These include the dubious validity of the assignment marking scales; the institutionally specific regulations for award calculations; and the inability of a single index to explain what students have learned. And employers can still create their own “cliff edges” using the GPA: for example, they may use 3.1 as a cut-off point when considering job applications.

I know of at least one Russell Group university who are also looking at this, and are looking for critical mass in the sector. It is interesting that GPA has been introduced initially by a post-92 institution.