The Learning Curve: Education and Skills for Life

A new publication from Pearson and written by The Economist Intelligence Unit is reported in the Times Higher.

Although it is not just about higher education, there are some useful points to draw out from it as ther report “seeks to distil some of the major lessons on the links between education and skill development, retention and use”.

Skills for the success in the 21st Century are identified, as shown in the diagram below.


From a higher education perspective, it is worthwhile questioning if we are developing and delivering programmes of study that enable our students to develop these skills to an enhanced level. Most universities these days have statements on graduate skills and attributes – how closely do these match?

A key point from the report however, is that people need to keep practising and developing these skills: lack of use leads to atrophy.

From the Times Higher article:

“Sir Michael Barber, Pearson’s chief education adviser, told Times Higher Education that in the 21st century “it’s clear that however great your first degree is, you’re going to have to keep learning”.

Because there is so little certainty about what the jobs of the future will involve, universities must train graduates with the right “attitudes and attributes” to keep learning for life, he said, noting that this was something the “best” higher education already did.

Universities should focus on this when trying to improve employability, he added, rather than on “preparation for a specific job”.”

An interesting item in the list of essential skills is “digital literacy”. This is an area that we will be doing more work on the next year at Staffordshire University, and not just with our studentts, but staff as well. Linking this to the idea of learning for life (above), then many  mightsee online education and MOOCs as a way of supporting that continuous learning and redevelopment. Interestingly the report states:

“One question is whether technology, which is becoming increasingly entrenched in the modern learning environment, can be used to encourage low-skilled adults to pursue further education. In the last couple of years many of the world’s top universities have launched massive open online courses (MOOCs), broadening access to high-quality educational resources. But a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania found that 83% of its MOOC participants already had a post-secondary degree – far higher than international averages. Broadening access through technology, then, appears to be not enough. A culture of learning and understanding the value of bettering oneself needs to be fostered at an earlier stage in life before new technologies can start to have a real impact on lifelong learning.”

Fascinating, when Pearson’s report last year on “An Avalanche is Coming” suggested that MOOCs were about to sweep away traditional university education!



Teaching and Learning on the Campus of Tomorrow

As Staffordshire University, and plenty of other institutions, press ahead with estates plans to redevelop their physical estate, this seems  a good time to take stock of what a university of the future might look like.

There have been plenty of apocalyptic visions of the future- for instance “An Avalanche is Coming“, the prediction of only a small number of universities existing world wide and all the predictions of technology led disruptions. Many of these have previously been reported on, dismissively, on this blog.

This article tries to look at some recent publications and ideas, and then links these to what the student of the future might look like, , how that student might want to learn in future, what this means for how we teach and what it means for campuses.

Since the beginning of universities, we have operated on the principle of “the sage on the stage”, and despite increases in student centred learning, small group working etc, this model is still prevalent and in part drives the way in which we timetable teaching and interactions between staff and students and our buildings. Thre’s not a huge difference between the 14th Century and the 21st, as these pictures show:





Universities of The Future – some scenarios

A recent publication “Living and Learning in 2034, A Higher Education Futures Project” by University Alliance and Unite Group looks at a possibly dystopian future for HE and what students of the future might want. Since Unite are a property services company, who provide student accommodation, clearly they have a significant interest in how students will study in future.

This publication tries to carry out some scenario planning 20 years into the future, and identifies 10 trends to shape learning in the UK:

A shift in the global economy
Continued to change to public funding for HE
Demographic Change
Ongoing impacts of the financial crisis
stakeholder expectations
Technological Change
Access to information
Climate change
Megacities and local communities

A range of universities is proposed in the report as follows:

unite - ecosystem


Any university be able to look at his and decide which sectors they can see themselves operating in.

Four scenarios are proposed for the future, with ideas about the implications for future living and learning: (all taken from report, not modified)

Scenario One: Living WellReturn to economic growth and collaborative society UK industry is world-leading.• Careers may be considered early on in life, but with a broader scope of flexibility and innovation.• Employers form long-term relationships with universities and seek graduates with many skills and qualifications.

• University seen as a necessary rite of passage to create innovative and collaborative graduates.

• Students have room to explore, but not to be complacent. They look for productive spaces and convenience so they are not bogged down by irrelevant issues.

• Accommodation is energy efficient as a matter of course. It is also expected to include a full range of digital connectivity.

There are many opportunities for both students and academics to collaborate internationally with other institutions.

• Overseas student numbers have increased, keen on physically attending UK universities in order to capitalise on a wealth of opportunities and connections.

• Postgraduate enrolment becomes the norm an increases significantly.

Scenario Two: Community CentreSustained Economic Stagnation and Collaborative Society Learning is rationed and the need to keep costs down is key, while meeting economic priorities.• Part-time learning combined with employment becomes a norm.• Full-time students do not expect to be guaranteed accommodation and more will be living at home to manage costs.

• Students will seek new ways to find success. Social entrepreneurial spirit becomes more of a norm and community initiatives allow many of these ideas to thrive.

UK businesses still have skills, expertise and relationships, but they have become nervous and risk averse. However they play a big role

in working with government to determine the type of skills needed in the economy.

• Unemployment has risen, but so has voluntarism. Communities are strong and people get involved in a wide range of local projects. Local initiatives such as trading schemes, co-operatives and credit unions are on the rise.

• Government has limited funds to invest in infrastructure and cities are suffering as a result.

• Public skills development programmes are popular but there aren’t enough jobs. The most talented choose to leave the UK to find work.

• Full-time student numbers are lower, but significant numbers still study.

• The student accommodation market is changing and the wise players

diversified a decade ago to take advantage of a broader range of market opportunities.

Scenario Three: Digital IslandsStagnating economy and competitive society Students will look to local universities for cost-effective training toward a chosen career. Expectations are for a quick turnaround, with more full-time degrees being delivered in 18 months.• The ‘student experience’ is utilitarian. Students are seeking a route to employment and they engage in activities with direct and tangible benefits.• Inequality between those in ‘elite’ institutions and those in local universities is pronounced. There are fewer universities; many institutions have merged.

• Curricula have narrowed and there is less scope for non-applied subjects. Full-time degrees are delivered in 18 months.

• There is little optimism in Britain. Personal debt has increased, pensions have decreased and jobs are not well paid. Britain’s industrial base is significantly weakened.

• Consumer choice is driven by necessity and price. Consumption is efficient.

• Business is short-termist. Training and education are regarded as a cost rather than an investment. There is little or no innovation.

• HE’s purpose is training for employment. Local employers commission courses from FE/HE partnerships according to workforce needs.

• Students from the cities favour going to their local universities and demand for accommodation has fallen.

• Postgraduate education has declined.

• There is little differentiation of accommodation by quality or service; basic property management is all that is required to be a provider.

• Uncertainty and reactivity can create fluctuations in student numbers

year on year. As such, successful accommodation providers have the flexibility to expand or reduce capacity as required.

Scenario Four: Whatiwant.comGrowing economy and a competitive society Students demand many different ways to interact and meet their learning needs.• Specialisation is common, but with individual student interests in mind.• Education is part of a much bigger picture for many students. The old accusations of lazy students are practically forgotten now. Total

downtime is rare and most activities have good reason and vested interests behind them.

• Digital technologies are integrated into everyday life. Fast and reliable access is taken for granted.

• All-in-one packages with inclusive services are favoured to help save both time and money.

• Students are keen to find the best experience and quality of teaching possible. Some are willing to pay more if they consider it a useful investment for their future.

• Accommodation varies in price, but is always well serviced. For those who can afford it, exclusive features and luxury space can be purchased at a premium.

From this kind of scenario planning, and linking this to what we actually know about our economy and institution, we can start to consider what we need to offer in terns of learning and teaching in the future – proactively developing our offer.

Learning and Teaching of Tomorrow

We already seen the reports from Graham Gibbs and many others saying that the lecture s dead. We’ve also read the predictions that MOOCs will change the world as we know it.

Thankfully there’s been a move away from the hyperbolic or hysterical news stories in recent months, with a more measured understanding appearing of how we can use technology and adapt learning and teaching practice to provide better outcomes.

In this article from InsideHigherEd, by Pamela Barnett, a critique is given of teh current trend for the “flipped classroom” and an explanation of why some lectures are still needed, but that an approach that she describes as “scrambled” is the most apprpriate. I think many of this will recognse this as “blended learning”, so nothing necessarily new, but its useful to see a clear critique of the flipped classroom concept, which is as rigidly defined as teh old didactic model.

Even Anant Agarwal (founder of EdX) acknowledges in this TED talk of the real benefit of using a MOOC to support blended learning (and in doing so identifies a possible revenue stream). He rightly recognises the need for us to understand the technological savvy of our students and a need for us to embrace this and to ensure learning is embedded through technology in students’ lives. Agarwal talks of re-imagining education, moving away from lecture theatres, to e-spaces, t using tablets, moving away from actual dormitories to digital dormitories.

Possible Impacts for Us

In a MOOC that I took on Surviving Disruptive Technologies, I looked at the near term future of a university and the impact that the use of educational technology, including MOOCs would have. I considered the type of students we might recruit in the future, how they may not want to bear the cost of studying on campus for three years and how this would affect estates, technology etc.(A copy of my assigner is available on request!)

When I look at my ideas again, in the light of the scenarios presented by University Alliance and Unite Group, and the ability for technology to lay a major part n how we deliver education of the future, I would suggest the following:

  • We identify what kind of university we want to be, and how in each of the scenarios we would need to operate.The potential change is much broader than the change to learning and teaching practice. It could have an impact on the patterns of learning that students engage with, and this would have a dramatic effect on the shape of a future campus. This goes beyond teaching accommodation. What do we need to do about student residence? Sports? Social facilities? Staff offices?
  • We look at the ways in which we plan to deliver learning and teaching in 5 years time, supported by technology, and in response to the possible kinds of students we will attract
  • We understand how we need to change and stop some of our current learning and teaching practices
  • We consider what the University should physically look like in the future.

This has been a bit of a future-gazing article. I don;t pretend to have the answers, but I’ll be working with my networks in the University and outside to start thinking of ways to develop some of this thinking. My first action is a now regular meeting with the Deputy Director in Information Services where we will be assessing the impact of new and near to market technologies to support learning and teaching.



The future of MOOCs

The beginning of a new year, and it’s time I wrote about MOOCs again. Or at least commented on output from a couple of seasoned and respected commentators, George Siemens and David Kernohan,

George Siemens created the first MOOC in 2008, and in an article this week entitled  “The attack on our higher education system — and why we should welcome it” on the TED blog website he talks about where MOOCs are now.

“As 2013 drew to a conclusion, the 18-month intoxicating hype machine produced the inevitable headache. The open vistas of a bright future where MOOC providers moved from success to success were replaced with a fatigued resignation that MOOCs were appearing to take their place in a lineage of many, many failed predictions of educational transformation. Move aside radio instruction and VCR teaching. Make room for MOOCs.

So what happened?

For one thing, the MOOC hypesters were wrong. They discovered, on the backs, or within the wallets, of their VC partners, that knowledge building is a complex integrated system with multiple facets. The linear nature of MOOC solutions to the perceived problems of higher education (better instructional software and greater numbers of learners) failed to account for knowledge building as an integrated social, economic and cultural activity of society. Suggestions of MOOCs replacing universities began to seem quaint and childlike.”

I don”t like to say “told you so”, because plenty of better informed thinkers than I were saying this last year too.

Indeed, Siemens goes on to say:

“The hype of 2012 must be counter-balanced with equally passionate hype decrying the failure of MOOCs!

Watching this conversation unfold, I am struck by the range of errors and misunderstanding within both camps.”

So that’s me told.

Siemens says that MOOCs are here to stay, and proposes a number of changes to expect:

“learners really need has diversified over the past several decades as the knowledge economy has expanded. Universities have not kept pace with learner needs and MOOCs have caused a much needed stir — a period of reflection and self-assessment. To date, higher education has largely failed to learn the lessons of participatory culture, distributed and fragmented value systems and networked learning. MOOCs have forced a serious assessment of the idea of a university and how education should be related to and supportive of the society in which it exists.”

The developments will be in:

  • corporate MOOcs, for recruitment, marketing and CRM
  • technological changes to allow MOOC providers to offer the facilities that other learning management system vendors provide
  • MOOCs will become more global – we already have FutureLearn in the UK
  • MOOCs will include ideas around personalising the learning experience

A key challenge will still be about accreditation of learning – universities are currently good at this, but as content becomes increasingly open, and teaching becomes open, the issue of awarding credit becomes significant, especially when we consider internal and external regulatory frameworks.

David Kernohan of JISC, writing on Followers of the Apocalypse also looks at the future of MOOCs.

He also shows that the early expectations are proving unattainable:

“All those millions of dollars that venture capitalists have invested come with the expectation of financial return – or, at the very least, sustainability. But despite moderately-huge (on a social media scale) user numbers, financial returns are proving harder to come by.

Most of the major xMOOC platforms now appear to be moving (at greater or lesser speed) towards a corporate training model rather than directly replacing traditional Higher Education.”

Kernohan is positive about the benefits of open education (noting that “open” needs to be carefully defined, as it means a range of things right now)

“An open class occurs where a traditional course delivered to paying students for credit is shared with the wider world – in that anyone can have access to the content and assessment that traditional students have, and discussion between students inside and outside the classroom is promoted and encouraged.

An open course offers the paying learner the best of both worlds – the structure, support and accreditation of traditional HE, plus the global network and enormous range of resources offered online. And for open learners, it is a chance to experience the reality of class-based teaching and to build strong relationships with students and staff in an institution.”

He also provides links to some great resources on the hype around MOOCs  and on sustainable online learning in institutions – it’s worth reading his blog and these related articles.

So for us at Staffordshire University – what could this mean?

I personally would not be recommending anyone to be rushing out to create a MOOC per se. Unless of course you have a significant amount of money in your budget and are prepared to spend it with no guarantee of return.

However, there are areas to learn from, and some of them are tiny things which could make a big difference to our learners:

  • creating short online video lectures (Coursera model) to provide revision opportunities
  • using online peer assessment for formative testing – a core part of most MOOC offers, but available in Blackboard and could provide great feedback to students
  • analyzsing the data on what our learners do while using Blackboard, to find out what works and what doesn’t
  • exploring the connectivist pedagogy used in #edcmooc and in early work by Siemens, as this could be a good model for much of our postgraduate  provision and also to support enquiry based learning (a Staffordshire Graduate attribute) at undergraduate levels
  • begin able to provide enhanced support to learners at our overseas partners, especially as we move to increasing staff and student mobility as part of the Staffordshire Global award
  • developing a better understanding of how we could use open resources and open learning to better support out existing students on and off campus

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!

Ed Tech in the Guardian

This week’s Guardian education section contained two interesting articles on aspects of educational technology, both of which have been written about before in this blog.

Firstly, Peter Scott (professor of higher education studies, Institute of Education) has suggested that Moocs will probably turn out to be little more than an edu-tainment ‘bubble’. Regular readers will know that  I am not a huge support of Moocs per se but that they might offer some advantages to traditional delivery.

Apart from the glaring inaccuracy of “The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is credited with being first, and now some big global media companies have piled in. “, when we all know that the first Moocs were developed in Canada by George Siemens et al, Prof Scott also states “Attempts to deliver HE-lite through further education colleges and private providers are never going to get very far” and thinks government perceives Moocs as a solution to this. Again, I think there  a plenty of FE colleges now delivering HE and private providers such as BPP who feel that they are delivering HE, but maybe just not the elitist HE that is backed up by hundreds of years of history.

Despite these issues, his reflection on Moocs as a neoliberal fix is perhaps the real issue to be discussed – why are we letting policy makers, venture capital funded companies and university administrations reduce the discussion about the future of mass higher education to the impact of some not very exciting or innovative technology?

The second article discusses the possible future use of learning analytics, another technology like Moocs that are highlighted as one to watch in the Horizon NMC publications. Again there is the danger of looking to this as an example of what Evgeny Morozov would describe as technological solutionism, however, it is clear that analytics could provide some really useful insight int how students learn and whether or not they are engaging with the courses.

Two things leap out to me from this article apart from the benefits we could see in supporting students and those are: cultural changes need and how analytics might be used to look at how academics perform.

Again, as with Moocs, just because a technology exists, doesn’t mean that it will provide an instant solution to a real or hypothecated problem. It is all very well to develop information systems that can indicate how well a student is or is not performing, but unless an institution has developed all its other support mechanisms, for instance study skills support and personal tutoring, together with the appropriate culture change, then the IT solution will not actually lead to benefits in student attainment.

And any analytics system would look at not only how students are interacting with their university, but also how academics and other staff are – for instance in how they use a VLE to support teaching, and how they respond to requests from personal tutees. As UCU president, Simon Renton is quoted “By their very nature, such sources of data do not take into account a range of other contextual factors which are of critical importance when making judgments about individual staff members’ work”.

Two technologies then, which will have an impact in higher education in coming years, but maybe best to look at them through the cynical lens of Morozov’s views on solutionism, and recognise that the real changes will take more than just technology.


Annual Survey of HE Leaders

The fifth annual survey of leaders of HEIs in the UK (Charting a winning course – How student experiences will shape the future of higher education) was published today by PA consulting .

The report is summarised as:

“This year’s survey report records the beginnings of a sea-change in the strategic priorities of leaders across the HE system. In place of their historical obsession with the outlook for Government policy and funding, leaders appear to have switched their focus to the competitive battle for fee-paying students and the imperative to offer attractive and rewarding learning experiences. This imperative is driven by the effective demise of grant funding for teaching, coupled with slowing and potentially falling student numbers and increased competition from alternative routes to higher learning.

Sector leaders are unimpressed by predictions that online alternatives will sweep away conventional providers of higher education, expressing confidence in the resilience of the established system to embrace and adapt to new ways of working. Nonetheless, our respondents are united in expecting the emergence of a very different HE system, characterised by a diversity of tailored and student-centred learning experiences delivered through a patchwork of provider partnerships, collaborations and alliances.

Our survey reveals a widespread expectation that not all current providers will survive this disruption, with predictions of institutional failures. There are however few signs of this actually happening. The more likely outcome, in our view, is a radical restructuring of relationships and ventures within and between providers, rather than a widespread shake-out of institutions. “

The greatest worry expressed by HE leaders is around future student demand – not really surprising considering a number of factors such as Changing demographic of UK population, with a reduction of 18yer olds for the next few years and the perceived lack of welcome from the UK towards international students. Over 90% were worried about the decline in UK/EU numbers of postgraduate students, and 80% about international postgraduates. As the report states:

“It is becoming apparent, as the market data increasingly validate these worries, that real competition for students of all types is becoming the major force for change in higher education”

This means that student experience is becoming increasingly important, and an area where universities will seek to differentiate themselves.

90% of respondents said that improving the student experience proposition was among their top three strategic priorities

“Strategic motivations for this priority were, however, polarised between those leaders who regard improved student experiences as primarily a driver of institutional standing (for example as factors in league table ratings or as a source of market distinctiveness) and those who are more concerned to improve students’ learning outcomes and/or employment prospects.”

This is an interesting split.  There is a real danger in being driven just by league tables, and forgetting that they are simply a mirror held up to us to see a reflection of our performance.  While improving our league table position is important, my view is that our focus has to be on improving student experience and outcomes, and allowing this to drive the league table.

To improve experience, many respondents indicated that increased contact with and access to academic staff would be desirable, whilst recognising the cost implications. In my view, this is where an L&T strategy could be designed which would ensure that contact was relevant, and significantly higher for the earlier levels of an award, with a subsequent decrease in the later years, with better use of technology supported learning for the more experienced learners.

It’s interesting to look at the graph below showing the factors that leaders felt inhibited improvements to student experience – cost implications and government or funding policies figure highly.

PA rept4

(from Charting a winning course – How student experiences will shape the future of higher education)


Another interesting finding of the survey was that, after all the hype about MOOCs (previously written about ad nauseam on this blog), many university leaders do not see them as a disruption which could remove established models of higher education. Many did think that the new technologies could lead to new forms of blended learning and blended pathways. Regular readers will know that this would be my take – unless we are all wrong and an avalanche really is coming.

The survey this year has suggested that “HE leaders have little expectation that Government or ‘official’ sector bodies will be central to their future success” and:

“None regarded Government departments or agencies as prime sources of innovative thinking or stimulus for change regarding student experiences (most institutions look first to their own staff and students for new thinking in this area). In this, as in many other regards, it is increasingly apparent that HE leaders no longer see themselves as responsible for delivering public education policies, and are looking to grow their institutions’ futures in a very different, learner-centred market environment.”

Our own university plan reflects this in its focus on partnership with the various key stakeholder groups – of which government is not one.

The outcome of the survey shows the prevailing neo-liberal view of higher education where student outcomes are measured very much in terms of the benefit to the individual student and their individual employment prospects, rather than the benefit that may be gained by society as a whole through their education.

Most HE leaders surveyed though that the sector was going to change in size and shape, with mergers and closures as part of the change. This is similar to previous survey results – which seem to say,” yes there’ll be closures, but it’ll be someone else.” The most anticipated change is in multi-institution partnership, alliances and networks.

PA rept6


(from Charting a winning course – How student experiences will shape the future of higher education)

Overall – the two most interesting things in this report for me are: the emphasis on student experience and how that could be differentiate between institutions; and the view of how some technologies will not be the disruption that others believe.


Whither MOOCs?

As I’ve blogged many times before, readers will be aware that I am known to be slightly sceptical about some of the claims being made for MOOCs, that in themselves they will massively disrupt education. The most enthusiastic propagandists have even suggested that there will be only a tiny number of universities in the future. So having read lots about them, taken and completed a couple I still remained sceptical, which is always difficult when in a room of fervent believers, such as the recent UUK meeting in London.

In a recent essay I submitted (to a MOOC in fact) I argued how the technology used, say in Coursera, could be used to improve on campus student learning, and to enhance the student experience, but that they would not sound the death knell for universities in themselves.

Today (30th May), some great blog articles have appeared talking about the end of MOOCs, based partly on a recent press release from Coursera which states that “The big news is that we have begun working with 10 US state university systems and public schools to explore the possibilities of using MOOC technology and content to improve completion, quality, and access to higher education”

They even call it blended learning. Which we’ve heard of before.

David Kernohan points out that “Both disruptive action man Clayton Christensen and free-course behemoth Coursera have recently swung round to the idea of educational institutions not being broken, merely tired-looking”.

Martin Weller in an blog post entitled “You Can Stop Worrying About MOOCs Now” says:

“It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that MOOCs are rather retreating from their initial promise/threat of world domination here. They’re becoming a means of approaching elearning within traditional education systems. There’s a couple of possible reasons for this.

The first might be that those Venture Capitalists are now demanding a solid and quick return on their investment. The initial open model isn’t offering this any time soon, so a quicker route to pay back is to work with existing providers and students who are already paying.”

So once again, can I offer my usual opinion? Don’t rush into this just because lots of others have done so. Let’s work out what we can learn from MOOCs and other aspects of technology and apply it in a way to improve the prospects of students and the organisation. Not all bandwagons need to be chased.




Educause provide loads of resources around the uses of technology in education, and here’s a briefing note on the questions to ask about MOOCs. I wish I had read this months ago, it might have saved a lot of other reading!

The article provides a quick summary of what a MOOC is, who the major players are but crucially what are the questions that need to be asked:

Why jump on the MOOC bandwagon?
Possibilities include: for outreach and exper- imentation, to extend the brand, and to gain institutional experience with emerging forms of instruction. Ultimately MOOCs may become a source of revenue to drive down costs while open- ing access to learning.

What is our institutional capacity to deliver a MOOC?
MOOCs require investment. Whether the MOOC is self-hosted or offered through a commercial platform, integrated course support is required. Support requirements include:
? Technical (e.g., videography, editing, graphic design)
? Instructional (e.g., instructional design, teaching assistant support)
? Library (e.g., resource discovery, copyright clearance)
Institutions intending to self-host MOOCs will need a sophisticated, highly scalable LMS-like platform, the ability to effectively market the courses, and the capacity to offer technical sys- tem support remotely and at scale.

Where do MOOCs fit into our institution’s e-learning strategy?
MOOCs should fit in the overall portfolio of course offerings. Do they complement or substi- tute for current course models? And if MOOCs are not an option, will faculty with stature, confidence, and teaching experience go outside the institution to offer a MOOC?

As now I’ve started reading some of the Educause research papers, you’ll all be delighted to know I’m developing a new techie obsession- learning analytics.

Week 4 of Surviving Disruptive Technologies



The fourth week of this course brings a quick examination of the publishing industry, two lectures on education and the details of the mid term assignment and final assessment.

Clearly for me, the section on education was the most interesting- here we have an academic whose expertise is in disruptive technologies and their impact on businesses, using what is claimed to be the big disruption for HE.

And Prof Lucas doesn’t disappoint. He provides a really coherent understanding of how a MOOC might be suitable for graduate education, and the possible limitations for undergraduate. However, unlike so many of the proselytisers he then provides a great description of how online could be used in undergraduate in response to the changing nature of students and the huge levels of tuition fee debt. The disruption then ceases to be just the technology, and becomes the impact on university estates policies, on calculation of credit hours ( this is less of an issue in the UK although still a problem in Europe, as we have accepted the idea of credit mapped to learning hours as opposed to contact), and on the calculation of faculty workloads. He doesn’t shy away from the need to rewrite online materials after 2 years of delivery, as indeed we would expect to carry out a major refresh of conventional lecture materials in that time.

So, having viewed the final assignment, I will be submitting an essay on the response of a lower ranking university to the possible disruption of MOOCs. Hence the cartoon above- if we want to do something like this, let’s make sure we know why we are doing what we’re doing, and not just chasing bandwagons.

Completion of the first UK MOOCs via Coursera

The first MOOCs offered by a British university through Coursera were from Edinburgh, and I completed the one on “E’-learning and digital cultures”. In this week’s Higher, an article provides analysis of the operation and the experiences of instructors and students.

I’ve written previously about my own experiences, so I won’t repeat that. I see some fellow students who became part of my personal learning network are quoted in the article.

Some key facts:

  • 308,000 students enrolled on 6 courses
  • one instructor reckoned he spent 8 hours a week from August to January on MOOC related activity prior to the course starting
  •  in the course I took, 42,000 enrolled, 4500 joined the Facebook group, there were 700 tweets per day using the hashtag #edcmooc and 2000 students joined a Google+ group
  • of the 42, 000 who enrolled, about 17,000 logged in at least once
  • about 2,000 students completed the final assessment
  • cost estimate from development to delivery – about £30,000

And I presume the income was zero, although instructors learnt an awful lot in the process.