Thank You

This weekend I took part in the British Heart Foundation midnight bike ride from Manchester to Blackpool.
A big thank you to everyone who sponsored me- I raised over £400 plus the gift aid  and donations can still be made here
It was a great ride, on relatively quiet main roads and we finished in 3hrs 40mins having decided to forgo any of the rest stops. One thing I learned (and thanks to Peter Jones for the advice) is that caffeine gels are great for for keeping you going. I may replace my morning coffee with these in future.

photo (2)    photo (1)   20130929-191721.jpg

The Times/Sunday Times League Table

The final big UK league table of the year has been published by the Sunday Times and The Times, and rather than being two separate guides from the two newspapers, is now  a single university guide.

Since the data used in this  is the same as that we have already seen in the Complete University Guide and the Guardian University Guide, albeit with different methodology and weighting factors, then we cannot be surprised at the results.

As ever, the top spots are occupied by Cambridge, Oxford, LSE, St Andrews and Imperial. Looking through the table at unis we might compare ourselves to reveals:

sunday times league table

We’ll be doing some further work to look at the details, and certainly some of the tables provided by the Guide, in terms of student population characteristics will be interesting to delve into, particularly considering the “social class” of undergraduate students.

Full details will be provided to Heads of School in the next couple of weeks.

FACT Forum

Last Friday, I gave a presentation to the the Faculty of Arts and Creative Technologies Forum.

The presentation was similar to one I have used previously in other faculties and schools, but with more opportunity for discussion.

We focused on university league tables, particularly on generating the understanding that league tables are not something that are done to us, but are just a reflection of our performance.

We looked at: why league tables are important; their flaws; what thy say about us now; how student information can influence them and what we could be doing to improve our position.

On this last point, of improvement, we looked at the work being carried out centrally on data returns, but the key area for development is in student satisfaction and attainment. They key question has to be “why do students here, entering with similar entry qualifications to elsewhere, have a lower chance of gaining a good degree?”

This is always a contentious issue, and inevitably there were comments about threats to academic standards, but also a recognition that if we could recruit better qualified students, so their attainment might improve.

I’m hoping that the discussion on improving attainment will gain traction over this year, in all faculties and schools, as this will be a central focus of Academic Development Unit Activity.

One quick win is to look at final year modules where, for whatever reason, students appear to under-perform, compared with on their other modules. An approach for considering this is offered by Graham Gibbs, as part of the TESTA project. We’ll be looking at this methodology as we look at the results obtained on all modules for the last 3 years.

British MOOCs launched



This week FutureLearn leaunched its first MOOCs. FutureLearn is the company set up from the Open University to be a British supplier of MOOCs, working in partnership with a number of Russell Group universities.

The initial offerings are available now for students to enrol on, and include topics such as: Begin programming: build your first mobile game; Discover dentistry; Introduction to forensic science, and The mind is flat: the shocking shallowness of human psychology. I’m just hoping that the dentistry course doesn’t have a practical element.

Speaking about the launch, Prof Martin Bean of the Open University said:

“FutureLearn would be “modularised” and involve “a completely different way of structuring” courses, we’re not going to talk about failures. We’re going to let people set their own targets – god forbid – and measure themselves against their own targets.”

Students would be able to “benchmark” themselves against peers rather than always having to be subject to what he termed “The Man”, “the university saying: ‘You’re a failure because you didn’t do what we said’. I challenge the whole outdated paradigm.”

So, tune in, turn on and drop out  next?

But the key quotation has to be:  “One thing that FutureLearn will never do is to confer university credit. That will always be the domain of the university.”

This is interesting and leads to his final comment about how universities might use MOOCs, to act as a way of granting free access to content, after universities recignise that their future is not about protecting the content that hey own, but by differentiating themselves by their approaches to student experience, pastoral care, teaching and employment opportunities.


BME Student Issues in the News

I’ve previously blogged about BME attainment issues, and researched the data pertaining to our university on how degree classification can be affected by ethnicity and disability, so a few recent news items were therefore of interest.


Firstly, a cross party group of MPs, led by David Lammy,  will carry out  a study entitled “Race and Higher Education“.

“As the job market becomes more competitive it is increasingly important for young people to make themselves as employable as possible. Higher education is seen by many employers as being the most direct way to do this,” a statement released on behalf of the all-party group says.

“As a result, the inquiry will seek to discover whether members of the BME community are being given equal access to the benefits of higher education and whether or not higher education is of equal value in the long term.”

It will be interesting to see how much this piece of work addresses the issues of student success and attainment.

Secondly, a report in the Guardian, questioned why computer science graduates topped the unemployment tables. (I don’t think that is the case at Staffordshire),and proposed that some of the factors were obvious, such as the quality of the degree obtained, location within the UK, and institution of study, but that one other key factor was the employment rates of black and minority ethnic (BME) students:

“BME graduates have higher unemployment rates across all subjects, and even BME computer science students from Russell Group institutions had a 16.7% unemployment rate compared to an average Russell Group unemployment rate of 7.2%. However, we do need to be clear that many of these students come from, and still live in, areas of extremely high unemployment, where a figure of 16.7% would be heralded as a significant success story.

It can and should be argued that any consideration of graduates’ employment needs to be contextualised against their contemporaries, rather than making unrealistic comparisons between institutions that draw from significantly different demographics. Having said that, there is considerable bias in the employment prospects for graduates of BME origin with similar or better qualifications than their white counterparts, which has even resulted in graduates changing or “anglicising” their names to obtain interviews.”

The article also points out that CS , particularly in post-92 universities has contributed significantly to widening participation success, with BME students opting for CS instead of other STEM subjects with “64% of computer science students studying at post-92s (65% of those BME students), as opposed to 13% at Russell Group universities (10% of those BME).”

Social and Cultural Capital pt2

I wrote a short piece on this a couple of weeks ago, which ended with a range of questions:

1. Do our students leave here with the “right” social and cultural capital?

2. Would it be possible to build this into a modular award structure?

3. Would students understand the benefit of material that is not subject based?

4. Who decides what is appropriate socially and culturally?

5. Would any work on this be based against groups (eg BME) who may have a different view of appropriate social and cultural capital

6. Is this the responsibility of a University?

Clearly I don’t have any answers yet to these, but a number of conversations since I wrote this suggest that there might be something here worth pursuing.

A meeting with the VC and Chief Executive of the Equality Challenge Unit, where we looked at a range of diversity and equality issues, was one where he raised the idea of inequity due to differing levels of social capital.

In today’s Observer, an article describes how Debretts’s is now providing courses (a snip at  £1000) on “social intelligence”:

“the Debrett’s research flags up rising concerns among business people about the employability of graduates and school leavers who have been tested to the maximum academically, but have no notion of what to expect from a job. The accusation is that schools and universities are so focused on academic targets that they are failing to produce rounded graduates. Instead they are turning out young people who are shy and awkward after spending all their time on the internet or mobiles, who lack the ability to spell or write a letter, and are unable to get through a day without regular online checks on what their friends are up to.”

Ignoring the claims that technology might be to blame (and although the online world can be dominant, there also has to be a recognition of its importance), there are suggestions that a number of employers are coming across graduates with excellent grades but who don;t have the other key social skills necessary.

It seems therefore that there might be something here for us as a University to look at. The critical question will how we do so. On the one hand, this will be an excellent area for research, linking together ideas from sociology and education. At the same time though, as well as developing a theoretical understanding we would need to develop practical approaches that could have a real impact on students.

After discussions with colleagues in Education, then it is apparent that the more important area might be that of social capital, where:

“We think of capital as being of two types. Bonding and bridging. Bonding ‘glues’ you in to a place / way of being / approach etc . Bridging gets you out of it. We actually need both types of capital. Bonding gives us a sense of permanence and security but it can also restrict us and stop us growing beyond what we are. ” (M Lowe)

In addition there are the concerns about how we might state what we feel is important or necessary social capital (as I suggested previously), particularly in a region (Stoke on Trent)  of low educational aspiration, and where we need to recognise  that there may be very strong social capital already (particularly of the bonding type) which it would be unreasonable to challenge, while at the same time trying to identify how we could increase the amount of bridging capital. (discussion with K Vigurs)

Based on a project bid I have just completed, I have a particular interest in how we could build in some of these ideas into a set of postgraduate attributes, as a way of enhancing employability beyond high level subject expertise.

Interestingly, at least one author (Moss, Electronic Journal of Sociology (2005) ISSN: 1198 3655 “Cultural Capital and Graduate Student Achievement:A Preliminary Quantitative Investigation”)  suggests that the Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital may not apply to graduate students, although the  author acknowledges he used a small sample, and concludes:

“Further research is needed in order to confirm or refute this study’s preliminary findings. Graduate level education is a prerequisite for virtually all high-status careers. If students who undergo such education are in fact subject to educational inequities based on their socioeconomic origins, then we should suggest educational efforts designed to ameliorate these inequities, and establish the critical contention that our nation’s highest level of education is not conducted on a level socioeconomic playing field.”

Ultimately this is the kind of challenge that faces any modern university in city where traditional industries have declined and the city is developing a new identity. It is the opportunity for a university to go beyond providing a reflection of its locale and to become a catalyst for raising aspiration.




MOOCs and KIS event at University of Hertfordshire

A week or so ago, I wrote an article here of resolutions for the academic year, and I said there would be no more articles on MOOCs. I was being economical with the truth.

Last week I was invited to speak at an event on Quality Assurance and Quality Enhancement in e-Learning, and event supported by the Higher Education Academy, to provide my thoughts and experiences of MOOCs.

As well as MOOCs, we also heard about issues relating to KIS.

Moocs and Quality Issues

Members of the QAQE steering group (Helen Barefoot of University of Hertfordshire and Jon Rosewell of the Open University) provided an overview of MOOC issues as follows:

We started with a definition of a MOOC including xMOOCs vs cMOOCs and the initial 2008 developments based on connectivism at theUni of Manitoba, moving to xMOOC platforms of Coursera and Udacity, used at San Jose and Georgia Tech, and finally EdX at MIT and Harvard.

A further series of providers was identified: Eliademy, Open2study and FutureLearn, the UK provider which will go live on 18th September.

The broader context was considered, in particular what was meant by “open” –

  • Open source?
  • Open licensing Creative Commons?
  • Open content in YouTube etc?
  • Open universities and distance learning?

The question “Why bother with quality?” was addressed, with the following stakeholders considered to be important.

  • Students
  • Employers
  • Authors
  • Institutions
  • Funders
  • Quality agencies


However, tensions were identified when comparing a massive course to a more traditional one, which had challenges both for quality assurance and quality enhancement

  • Delivery – f2f or distance
  • Accreditation – credit or none
  • Price – at cost or free
  • Entry – selective or open
  • Scale – personal or massive
  • Support – intensive or not supported
  • Pedagogy – constructivism or transmission
  • Teacher – star or anonymous


When considering the ideas of “massive” it was suggested that the issue is not large size, but scale independence (and the scale independence needs to financial, technical and pedagogical). When considering learning design at scale, the the following need to be considered: individual learning, small group collaboration and the impact of large communities.

When considering MOOCs, we need to be aware of what we mean also by “open” online” and “course”. When making a comparison to the courses we are more used to, then size, goal, learning outcomes,measures of completion and retention, and course structure all start to have different meanings. Since MOOCs are actually aiming at different learners, then they become different from usual uni course and don’t always fit with normal measures of quality or success.

The QAA view was portrayed as a clear message to safeguard quality and standards, based on the quality code and applied to all learning including MOOCs (Code chapters b1 b3 b5 b6). This was different from a message I had previously heard, where QAA were interested only if courses were offered for credit.

Experiences of MOOCs

Following this, I presented my view of MOOCs, sharing personal experiences of the courses I have completed, and providing a critique (naturally) of the neo-liberal technological solutionist approach being offered. I concluded with the PA Consulting report that showed that heads of institutions in the UK were not convinced that this was a disruption. I think I might agree with them.

My Experience of MOOCs -Herts Uni video

Key Information Sets

A session on the early evaluation of KIS, by Catherine Benfield of HESA provided the following information:

  • New data and features available from 19th September
  • Data collection reopens for updates the day after and the site will be refreshed once per week
  • Data set hosted by HESA for download as XML file
  • Scale of review next year will be a lot less, just small practical updates


However there is also an ongoing UK wide review of information provision being led by HEFCE with 6 strands of review

  1. Advisory study on how students use the data and make decisions about studying
  2. NSS – review of purpose
  3. NSS – detailed of results since 2005. Report in spring 2014
  4. Review of unistats website. Report in autumn 2014
  5. How to improve info on salaries and employment outcomes
  6. Strategy overview

The question was also raised – “should we just allow the market to produce websites?”, so that HESA would collect data and the market (for instance companies such as Which?) could produce the advisory websites. An interesting idea.

The final presentation was on an early evaluation of user experiences of KIS, by Moira Sutton of University of Derby which found:

  • Participants generally positive
  • End users more positive than professional users eg HE staff
  • Mostly people get there direct via URL
  • Little traffic from anywhere except widgets
  • Mainly used by prospective and current HE students and HE staff !
  • Participants were most interested in entry, course content, quality of experience and employability and the last of these was the most important.





Get on your bike!

13-allez-49-redOn Saturday 28th and Sunday 29th September, I shall be donning lycra and fluorescent clothing to attend a 80s theme party to take part in the midnight bike ride from Manchester to Blackpool in aid of the British Heart Foundation.

I’d be really grateful if you could sponsor me for this event by following this link to




I will promise not to publish photos of me in bike shorts on this blog if you choose to sponsor me – can’t say fairer than that!

HEFCE to cut SNC

Last week HEFCE published the outcomes of its consultation into arrangements for student recruitment, particularly SNC for 2014-15.

“For 2013-14 admissions, HEFCE was also asked by Government to allow all universities and colleges some flexibility in their student number control allocations, to make sure that they could better cater to student choice and demand. From 2014-15, Government also asked HEFCE to look at how we might be able to offer more places to universities and colleges where there was evidence of demand from students, and treat those institutions that have less demand less favourably. HEFCE consulted on how we should implement this guidance

The main change for 2014-15 admissions is that, provided the Government’s financial circumstances allow, universities and colleges that recruit significantly below their student number control allocations will lose some of their places, and these will be reallocated to those universities or colleges that recruit well. Those universities and colleges that lose places will have an opportunity over the next year to recover some of the places lost.”

For universities that recruit significantly below SNC then there is a year’s flexibility to recover –

“The policy aim is to aid student choice by allowing popular institutions to grow, and an argument could be made that innovation will be equally constrained if popular institutions are not given adequate opportunities to capitalise on demand. We note that the recruitment cycle is longer than a year, and that with the recovery mechanism it will actually be two years before any significant reductions in the SNC allocation would be applied. “

The flexibility available to institutions from 2014-15 will be a minimum of 12 places, or 3 per cent, whichever is larger, although this was written in the context of institutions exceeding their SNC, I’m still not clear if this is the same figure to count as being significantly below target.

The appendix to the document shows the responses to the consultation, and how HEFCE has interpreted them. This one is interesting:”Will the proposed approach offer students more choice while also protecting the student support budget?”. Responses from HEIs have 23 saying yes, 22 saying no,, and 51 saying don’t know. An interesting response, and more detailed notes show concerns with impact on widening participation, local recruitment and impact at regional levels.

The next year or two of undergraduate recruitment, certainly for those with significant SNC look to be challenging. Are we yet approaching the time when we need to consider post qualification applications – Paul Greatrix at Nottingham certainly thinks so.

New Year’s Resolutions

OK, so it’s not January, but it is a new academic year, so here are my work resolutions and plans:


  1. Make student attainment a focus for Academic Development Unit activity
  2. Make sure every group of staff knows how they can contribute to improving league table performance
  3. Give talks  in all faculties and schools throughout the year
  4. Run an event on campus to address the issue of BME student performance
  5. Develop undergraduate and postgraduate award portfolio performance tools
  6. Learn how to use Blackboard, particulalry analytics
  7. Review personal tutoring and other L&T enhancement processes
  8. Give keynote speech on MOOCs
  9. Stop writing blog articles about MOOCs – they were so 2012.
  10. Do not publish blog articles that might offend…….chiz