Online Learning – a conversation

Late on Friday I met up with an award leader from one of our schools. He was developing a new postgraduate award. He’s previously been active using social media to support his students, and is keen to use ideas learnt from MOOCs to develop onine learning resources

Since I am now responsible for Blackboard amongst other things, he felt I was a starting point for a number of his queries. (Disclosure – I may understand plenty of uni policies, but I’m not an e-learning guru).

But here are some of the things we went through, and I’m writing them up here because there may be ideas that others want to use, or challenge.

Shared Teaching

One of the perceived benefits was to move to a more open approach between multiple cohorts, with shared teaching materials and discussions. This can be dealt with in Blackboard, by creating an elective Community that is shared between each of the different module instances created for each intake. Content can be used to share learning materials.  Assessment will still need to be undertaken in the individual module.

MOOC style delivery

The intention was to have minimal lecturer involvement, and for students to self learn throughout the module. The evidence from MOOCs is that the dropout rate is high. Some synchronous seminars delivered online, using Skype, Google Hangouts or other third party tools might be a solution to this.

Open Access

We discussed the option of creating a module with content that could be used by two groups of students – those on an accredited version, and those on an unaccredited version. The plan was that the cost would be the same for both. I can’ see a benefit in this – if students are paying a fee, then they are paying for us to accredit their learning. Another  issue related to this would be around the length of time a student is enrolled on a module – our regulations expect that modules are completed within a certain time, and the information system codifies this. For the numbers of students involved, we felt there was little advantage in creating a second open version at this point.


In terms of content, we discussed the learning materials that could be used – the approach discussed meant that the course would use significant amounts of existing learning materials, and the role of the lecturer was to curate that material.

Roll on/Roll Off enrolment

This was the plan for the first module. There is a slight problem with this, and it’s more to do with other student systems. For every pattern of delivery we’ll need to create that definition in the student information system. So rather than have true roll on/roll off, we felt that creating 3 intakes per year might be a better approach.


After talking about the final assessment, we thought about how we could use peer assessment to improve formative feedback and engagement. Blackboard offers a great tool for this. If you create a self and peer assessment, under assessment tools, then questions can be created, together with a marking rubric. The assessment can then be set to be undertaken within a certain timescale. Following submission, all participants are then required to assess (anonymously) other students’ work. The advantage of this technique are: students engage in the marking process; peer pressure will encourage greater take up of a formative assessment opportunity and staff can record the formative marks received if desired.

These are just notes from a conversation,  but it shows some of the areas we should be providing more guidance in our Blackboard help files.


NMC Horizon Report 2014 -Preview

The NMC Horizon reports are always worth reading. I blogged about last year’s, and the preview of this year’s is now available

“The NMC Horizon Report > 2014 Higher Education Edition is a collaborative effort between the NMC and the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI), an EDUCAUSE Program. The full report is scheduled for release on February 3, 2014.

 The eleventh edition will describe annual findings from the NMC Horizon Project, a more than decade-long research project designed to identify and describe emerging technologies likely to have an impact on learning, teaching, and creative inquiry in higher education. Six emerging technologies will be identified across three adoption horizons over the next one to five years, as well as key trends and significant challenges expected to continue over the same period, giving campus leaders and practitioners a valuable guide for strategic technology planning.”

In advance of publication of the full report, I’ve looked at the preview, and tried to summarise each of the emerging technologies, key trends and challenges for us. I’m not saying my answers are definitive, and different individuals and groups will have different views, but in my role of having oversight of technology enhanced learning, the exercise provides useful reflection.

 Key Trends Accelerating Ed Tech Adoption in Higher Education

1. Fast Moving Trends: Those likely to create substantive change (or burn out) in one to two years

Online, Hybrid, and Collaborative Learning Already being used to support on campus and distance learning. Possibility of exploiting further to develop hybrid learning and thus reduce amount of attendance needed on campus for full time students, leading to re-evaluation of estate needed, both in terms of amount, but also type.
 Social Media Use in Learning Being used significantly in specific areas but little overall coordination or advice being provided on how to optimise utilisation so far.


2. Mid-Range Trends: Those likely to take three to five years to create substantive change

The Creator Society

“Higher education is now in a position to shift its curricular focus to ensure learning environments align with the engagement of creator-students and foster the critical thinking skills needed to fuel a creator society. Courses and degree plans across all disciplines at institutions are in the process of changing to reflect the importance of media creation, design, and entrepreneurship”

We’re doing pretty well at this – the idea of co-creation of learning is a key strand of the academic strategy, together with the commitment to enquiry based learning. The Staffordshire Graduate attributes also reinforce this, as well as providing the needed focus on entrepreneurship
 Data-Driven Learning and Assessment“

As learners participate in online activities, they leave a clear trail of analytics data that can be mined for insights. Learning analytics is a collection of tools to process and analyze that data stream, and use it to modify learning goals and strategies in real time.”

This is still new to us, although individual staff might be using some of the simplest data available on BlackBoard usage to identify student engagement. One of the new roles n ADU includes a brief to look into learning analytics, so we’ll be providing more information on this.


3. Slow Trends: Those likely to take more than five years to create substantive change

Agile Approaches to Change

“There is a growing consensus among many higher education thought leaders that institutional leadership could benefit from agile startup models. Educators are working to develop new approaches based on these models that stimulate top-down change and can be implemented across a broad range of institutional settings.”

This is the area where my new eam wil have to review how we develop and introduce new ideas in technology enhanced learning. The pace of technological change, and the need to respond ever more quickly to demands from learners and teachers mean a move away from rigid planning paradigms.
Making Online Learning Natural

“Asynchronous voice and video tools are humanizing online learning. Historically, one of the major concerns people have expressed about online courses is the lack of interaction. People desire digital learning opportunities that mimic face-to-face experiences. Learning management systems and other services are beginning to incorporate recording features that allow both faculty and students to communicate more authentically online.”


This is an area where I hope we can make a real difference quickly. A further BlackBoard product will enable us to have video and voice conferencing, recording of online session and audio feedback incorporated into assessment tools. This would, with one single implementation, change our use of a learning management system from one which is a repository of learning object and asynchronous discussion, to one that engages learners and teachers in real time.


 Significant Challenges Impeding Ed Tech Adoption in Higher Education

1. Urgent Challenges: Those which we both understand and know how to solve

 Low Digital Fluency of Faculty

“Faculty training still does not acknowledge the fact that digital media literacy continues its rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession. Despite the widespread agreement on the importance of digital media literacy, training in the supporting skills and techniques is rare in teacher education and non-existent in the preparation of faculty.”

This should be easy to solve, so long as we recognise it as a challenge. If we want teaching staff to be able to use the technology that is available to them, then we have to not only ensure that training is available, and people are able to easily access it, but also see the benefits of using the tools available.
Relative Lack of Rewards for Teaching The first university to crack this one will be onto a winner in terms of rewarding teaching staff. No matter how much an institution might commit to teaching, the reward and recognition mechanisms don’t always follow. Clarifying the focus and lines of accountability will go some way to achieving this.


2. Difficult Challenges: Those we understand but for which solutions are elusive

 Competition from New Models of Education MOOCs are always cited here, but in themselves, I don’t think they are the competition. However, the change to number allocations will reset the UK market. Other areas of competition for us to consider are private providers – particularly for low cost, employability led subjects. In the future, a more blended approach to the traditional 3 year degree will be a challenge
 Scaling Teaching Innovations

“Our organizations are not adept at moving teaching innovations into mainstream practice.”

“Current organizational promotion structures rarely reward innovation and improvements in teaching and learning. A pervasive aversion to change limits the diffusion of new ideas, and too often discourages experimentation.

This links back to the digital fluency of faculty staff, and rewards for teaching. Like everyone we have struggled to provide reward and recognition – Teaching Excellence Fellowships go so far, but should we see more Professorships based on teaching and learning innovation, having an impact on the organisation?


3. Wicked Challenges: Those that are complex to even define, much less address

 Expanding Access

“The off-cited relationship between earning potential and educational attainment plus the clear impact of an educated society on the growth of the middle class is pushing many countries to encourage more and more students to enter universities and colleges.”

In this institution we understand the transformative benefits of HE to those who study with us. The  first challenge for us is to make sure that these students still feel able to enter HE, and the second is to learn to support those who maybe have not been prepared to degree level study through traditional A-level routes. We might need to develop a better idea fox where our students are coming from and how they learn
Keeping Education Relevant

“As online learning and free educational content become more pervasive, institutional stakeholders must address the question of what universities can provide that other approaches cannot, and rethink the value of higher education from a student’s perspective.”

If the content is more freely available than ever before, and video lectures can be downloaded, why come to university? We need opt clearly identify what our proposition is, and then make sure we focus on that.



Important Developments in Educational Technology for Higher Education

1. Time-to-Adoption Horizon: One Year or Less

Flipped Classroom

“a model of learning that rearranges how time is spent both in and out of class to shift the ownership of learning from the educators to the students. After class, students manage the content they use, the pace and style of learning, and the ways in which they demonstrate their knowledge, and the teacher becomes the guide, adapting instructional approaches to suit their learning needs and supporting their personal learning journeys.”

This is used in plenty of area already to a greater or lesser extent. One thing that might prevent adoption though is that the current model, which includes timetabling, resourcing and estates, is designed around the mass lecture. No matter how many times we are told people don’t learn much in lectures, when you have 200 enrolled in a class, it’s the easy and efficient way to maximise contact hours.
Learning Analytics

“data science with the aim of improving student retention and providing a high quality, personalized experience for learners.”

We have some tools in Blackboard to use for analytics, and we’re improving the data and benchmarks we provide for retention. To really leverage this technology thought would require more investment, and a much clearer vision of what we want to measure, how we will set algorithms to analyse the data and how we design interventions. And above all, would the cost of the data science be repaid by improved student outcomes. Certainly schools and colleges are much more u to speed that the HE sector on using past results in predicting outcomes.


2. Time-to-Adoption Horizon: Two to Three Years

3D Printing

“3D printing refers to technologies that construct physical objects from three-dimensional (3D) digital content such as 3D modeling software, computer-aided design (CAD) tools, computer-aided tomography (CAT), and X-ray crystallography.”

Clearly this can be used (and indeed already is) in teaching of design, education and manufacturing. The challenge would be seeing how this technology could help in other disciplines.
 Games and Gamification

“the gamification of education is gaining support among educators who recognize that effectively designed games can stimulate large gains in productivity and creativity among learners”

This isn’t just about playing games – one area where we are already using an element of gamification is in the Staffordshire Graduate Employability project  with the use of badges. How much further this could be extended in HE is questionable, unless the badges had external currency. If they could be earned after study of a recognised MOOC, they may provide additional detail to an HEAR.


3. Time-to-Adoption Horizon: Four to Five Years

Quantified Self

“the phenomenon of consumers being able to closely track data that is relevant to their daily activities through the use of technology.”

We need to keep a watching brief on mobile and wearable technologies. As these become pervasive, from BlackBoard Mobile, through Google Glass and devices such as Pebble, can we identify how we can use these to improve student learning?
 Virtual Assistants.

”Virtual assistants are a credible extension of work being done with natural user interfaces (NUIs), and the first examples are already in the marketplace.”


Siri and Microsoft Kinect are just the starting points. How will we use these in an educational setting? So far KInect recognises me, and Siri provides answers to simple questions. In 5 years I expect my car to be talking to me.


Clearly these are my views only – on this one, I’d really welcome comments, either below, or emailed to me, so that we can update this and use it as a living document.

Blackboard Education Leadership Forum 2013

Strategies to improve student recruitment engagement and retention

This one day event was an opportunity for both Blackboard and users of its software to showcase their ideas and experiences. These notes summarise what I took away from the day, the full set of slides will be sent to participants later, and I will share with colleagues as necessary.

Some of the most interesting comments were from Rick van Sant at the end of this piece  – for example how to drive technology adoption in an institution and the impact of requiring all marks to be in grade book.

The other idea I particularly like is the use of students to provide technical support, at least to other students, if not to staff.

MOOCs inevitably make an appearance, but the hype seems to have gone, and people are trying to identify the reasons for doing them.

 Jay Bhatt, (CEO, Blackboard)

Jay suggested we are approaching a perfect storm in education and need to ask the questions:

What is the value proposition?

Is the education interaction available the right one?

He felt that BB has opportunity to influence perfect storm.

Compared to other markets, there appears to be a lateness in globalisation of education, but this is now happening in areas of population growth

He cited the lack of universities and HE places in China, suggesting that they will turn to western brands and online education.

Considering the US, where 76 % of high school students have a mobile device, why do educators still use textbooks?

Looking ahead to Education 2020, we need to understand where education is going. This will involve:

  • Truly global – By 2020 40% of all college grads will come from  India and China
  •  Non-traditional learners – In US 85% of learners are non-traditional
  •  Consumer preferences – current course constructs are antiquated
  • Learner centric education
  •  Big data in mainstream – even BB isn’t doing enough on this   Data should support retention. How can we use analytics to support this?
  •  Online mobile everywhere – online enrolments has grown 10x growth rate of traditional enrolments

Jay recognised that BB has to improve- products not well integrated with each other. They could be better at innovation and needed to be a better citizen to the education industry

The BB plan for the future is : Accelerate, integrate, innovate

On MOOCs, he suggested that the key thing is that they bring attention to online large scale education .

On Citizenship- BB need to be contributing back to industry and used  BB Connect and push technology for reporting bullying through use of a  mobile device. BB have decided not to monetise this, and pushed it out free to US school districts

Blackboard Labs will deliver some innovations into public area for beta testing, for example the development of an online polls system, instead of voting clickers

 Sue Rigby, University of Edinburgh

This presentation was on how Edinburgh we using BB for recruiting and positioning. As a research focused institution, they want to recruit international elite who can afford the fees and by 2020 want 15000 postgraduates with  50% of these off campus.

They intend to achieve this via online delivery and aggressive marketing with an increased digital presence for marketing .

They intend to place courses and programmes online, in particular part time vocational masters, with  10 new awards per year.

They don’t  think MOOCs will transform education for Edinburgh, despite the fact they have run them through Coursera. They are now exploring if MOOC can be shared with U21 network. However a large number of students were exposed to Edinburgh through MOOCs and this was cheaper than any other form of marketing.

Edinburgh also ran an online open day which attracted 400 unique visitors from 60 countries. This included the use of academics in chat rooms. This meant huge training requirements and although moderately effective was not sustainable.

Edinburgh now use static video to showcase masters awards.

There were incidental benefits though- more digital awareness, more trained academics, , more focus on marketing as a valid activity, more preparedness to try new things

It was noted that lots of academics are neither digital natives nor even digital converts, and still rely on papers and books.

Esther Jubb , University of Derby Online

Now running 23 online programmes with 65% of students from UK. In 2009 there were 1100 students with £1m turnover – that is now 2400 students and £4.4m turnover. In the University, part time students contribute is 44% of income and 29% of student numbers.

The key message was –  It’s hard!!!!

The Derby online model is to use a dedicated separate business unit.

The biggest difference is in how academic staff are used. Discipline leads exist in the unit who line manage associate lecturers who are remote from the university. Derby Online Recruit online specialists to deliver the programmes, thus ensuring that everyone is dedicated to being an online tutor. There has been no problem recruiting Specialist online tutors. May even  be working for other unis! Offer them support and a community of practice

Student recruitment is carried out using a virtual open day using BB collaborate, and is focused on individual programmes and the support services available. There is a 40 to 50% conversion rate at open days!

To support engagement and retention, Online learning advisors, like a client manager, will proactively check students, eg if not engaging with learning materials.

It was noted that students want learning experience to be consistent. Lecturers have to use a common template. There are also content development standards – since learning content is commissioned not just from Derby staff.  Derby Online se “universal design for learning” so don’t need to make further reasonable adjustments.

The following success factors were cited- executive support, evolution after10 years, clear focus on online only, the existence of the perfect storm where technology is here and people are comfortable with it, tough economic climate

There were some issues though – Derby Online don’t use the existing TEL team as they are funded by faculties. There was also an issue of access to library budgets.


Peggy Brown Syracuse University

Peggy talked about the impact of MOOCs on recruitment and retention. At Syracuse, all staff are already required to teach online as they are a  well-known and established online provider. However it is different teaching in MOOCs, compared  to credit bearing course.

She cited the need to recognise institutional motivation behind running a MOOC eg for professional development, to provide a certificate of completion or even earn a scholarship

Syracuse therefore used their MOOC as a marketing tool – successful completion meant that studnets had fees waived for part of the course they subsequently enrolled in.

 Angie Clonan and Luke Miller, University of Sheffield

Angie and Luke presented on an internally funded development to develop MOOCs when there was institutional indecision about MOOCs.

They used BB coursesites as the staff were already familiar with the software, which was open and robust

The stats were:

  • 1394 join requests
  • 1048 registered
  • 603 started
  • 136 continued to end and 73 certificates issued.

Not everyone was interested in getting a certificate. Participants were from 61 countries. From evaluation, the reasons for non-completion were time commitment and technical. Incentives to complete would have been more valuable accreditation, access to instructor, reduced time commitment

It was difficult to evaluate or to provide cost benefit analysis howver the cost was about £70k for all 3 MOOCs.


Wendy Kilfoil,  University of Pretoria

Wendy spoke about the use of Learning Analytics in a country with 15% HE participation rate. Overall the country has 27% dropout in first year and only 25% complete in 3 years, while at Uni of Pretoria the figures are much better, with  8.1% dropout and 39% completing in 3 years.

Now using analytics for BB Learn. Integrated BB and Oracle Peoplesoft  and,then get lecturers to commit to putting formative marks on BB.

The system enables students to reflect on their progress and allows faculty staff to feedback on course design. The university provides dashboards for a range of different users, eg student, lecturers, award leaders, deans, exec


Rick van Sant, (Blackboard)

The final talk of the day was about improving experience through technology adoption

We are probably in late majority in developed world, and early adopters in developing world , so the lifecycle position depends on which market you are in.

There may be a chasm in lifecycle caused by  MOOCs, regulations etc and other disruptions .

Considering a capability maturity curve, Rick felt that 80% of universities were still in phase 1 , or exploratory phase.  Hardly any were in the phase where elearning had become mission critical. This suggested that institutions needed to know where they are, to be able to identify where to go next .

Rick suggested the need for an elearning adoption ecosystem, which cannot be based on a single technology or product. The ecosystem is about building the digital culture. As part of this, Blackboard should be owned by the teaching and learning community and not the IT department

For a successful ecosystem to develop, the following were proposed:


  • Dedicated eLearning coordinator or distributed champions
  • Use students for blackboard support!! Even Faculty staff will learn about tech from students
  • Senior academic leadership to drive vision
  • Policy development to facilitate eLearning eg hiring policy, appraisal
  • Level of person and course usage – analytics
  • Clear differentiation between passive and active engagement – is it just a repository for information Digital business processes complementing digital learning- need to create a digital culture, re social media, wifi, mobile etc.
  • What is the university strategy to 21st century education and digital culture.
  • All of these need to be connected.

Rick also talked about the barriers to adoption by faculty staff:

  • Fear of the unknown- knowing fear is there means we can understand why there’s problem
  •  If it ain’t broke – can we answer why they need to do something different
  • We’re all alone  in this together – divide and rule, ego surrounding what we are as academics
  • Know thyself – don’t know ourselves as teachers, why would you know about science of t&l?


He suggested that there are four types of faculty-

  • Entrepreneurs
  • Risk averse
  • Reward seekers
  • Reluctant

which can be plotted as a 2 x 2 matrix of motivation on x axis and skill on y axis.


The most important factor to success in technology adoption is ease of use, which is why they have been making BB easier to use.

Suggested there should be Faculty wide demos,  Lots and lots of training, creation of champions and mentors,  help centres located where staff are located, newsletters (no more than 1 page)with tips for beginners and pros.

He concluded by saying we need to be creating a new norm driven by top down institutional value change and bottom up student demand. This can be supported by management policies to support digital usage and providing the right technology. Finally he suggested that requiring faculty to enter all grades in grade book would lead to staff getting over the fear of using the system. This could lead to rapid expansion of use of other features by staff, plus students respond to grade book if there is rapid and constant feedback!