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e-Learning Digest No 151 - Mar 17

Cloud created by:

Jim Ellis
14 March 2017

UK Conferences & Workshops

Online learning and adult education MOOCs

Self-paced online learning and adult education MOOCs and BOCs






[BBC; THE; Wonkhe; The Guardian; UWN; Peter Horrocks; The Independent]

The government has announced plans for universities to charge up to £28,000 for two year fast-track degrees, thus saving students a year’s living costs.  According to Jo Johnson, “It's the same standard, the same quality, but in a compressed period of time and that involves an increase in resources, which needs to be recognised in the fee structure”.  Mr Johnson should pay a visit to Coventry, where my daughter’s Business Studies degree has revealed itself to comprise 3 x two-semester years meaning that, by Easter, she is back home consuming the contents of our fridge.  Coventry appears to have stretched two-years’ worth of programme across three years so, applying Mr Johnson’s logic, we’re eagerly awaiting our fee rebate of £3k per year.

Labour has a different perspective.  Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell says scrapping tuition fees in England is a “majority position” in Labour after Jeremy Corbyn’s two leadership victories and “therefore will become policy”.

The Guardian discusses Lords’ opposition to the Higher Education and Research Bill, particularly in respect of proposals for the Office for Students (OfS) to allocate or withdraw degree-awarding powers to traditional HEIs and alternative providers, both non-profit and for-profit.  There are some predictable voices supporting and opposing the bill; Hepi’s Nick Hillman is broadly in favour, but is sceptical of proposals for OfS to grant degree-awarding status for a three-year probationary period, concluding that the “high-speed approval system is a risk too far”.

Hesa has published latest UK HE non-continuation rates, showing that 6.2% of UK domiciled ‘young’ full-time first degree entrants did not continue in HE after their first year, rising to 11.7% for ‘mature’ students.  For part-timers, 37.3% of UK domiciled first degree entrants aged 30 and under did not continue in HE after their second year, falling slightly to 33.4% for those over 30.

A new report from the University Alliance, Lifelong Learning: Ladder and Lifeline responds to the drastic fall in the number of part-time students – down by 44% since 2008/9 – as well as the Government’s recent Industrial Strategy Green Paper which identified the need for ‘ambitious new approaches’ to enable lifelong learning.  Launched last month by speakers including Peter Horrocks, its recommendations include:

  • Creating a centralised UCAS-style system for lifelong learning courses

  • Re-introducing lifelong learning accounts and more flexible funding to allow accelerated degrees

  • Broadening the Apprenticeship Levy to cover a wider range of lifelong learning courses

Continental universities are becoming wary of involving United Kingdom institutions in new bids and proposals for collaborative research programmes funded by the EU for fear that their chances of success will be damaged by Brexit.  The University of Porto’s, Associate Professor Pedro Teixeira said: “In my institution, if we are reapplying for joint European programmes that were coordinated by British universities, the new proposal will not be coordinated by a UK university … just in case the British will not be counted after 2018 or '19 or whenever”.

On- and off-campus spending by the UK’s 437,000 EU and non-EU students generated £25.8bn in gross output for the UK’s economy in 2014/15, new research from Universities UK has shown.  £4.8bn of this was spent on tuition fees (£4.2bn from non-EU students), accounting for 14% of total university income.  The British Council’s Rebecca Hughes commented that “1 in 5 of all students in UK universities are international and contribute greatly to UK university success – many courses would not be available to UK students without the presence of international students.”

Jo Johnson, the universities minister, has asked student bodies and institutions for guidance to help combat “contract plagiarism”, where tens of thousands of students are believed to be buying essays for hundreds of pounds a time from what the QAA estimates as more than 100 essay mill websites in operation.  An further emerging threat also comes from the growing number of web-based paraphrasing tools which, according to new research, allow students to paraphrase academic work for their own assignments but are often undetectable by plagiarism-checking software such as Turnitin.

More than 9 in 10 UK universities are restrictive of free speech, with Russell Group institutions significantly more censorious that the average, according to a new report supported by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust.  The Free Speech University Rankings, drawn from examining the policies and bans of 115 universities and students’ unions, found that 63.5% were “severely” restrictive of free speech, with more than 30% given an “amber” warning, and the situation has worsened over the past 3 years.  The OU doesn’t seem to be listed, which can only mean nnnn  nn  nnnnn and nnnnn  nn  n  nnnnn, as we probably all suspected.



[FutureLearn; EdSurge; Stephen Downes]

FutureLearn has announced its first US university partnerships.  American University, Colorado State University, Penn State University, Purdue University and UVA Darden School of Business are joining a partnership of 75 world leading UK, European, Australian and Asian universities, further extending FutureLearn’s international reach.

edX has added 16 new MicroMasters programmes to the 19 originals it launched last September.  The credit-eligible programmes from 12 university partners including Adelaide, Boston, Columbia, Georgia Tech and UC San Diego, span subjects ranging from instructional design and business analytics to cybersecurity and data science.

Researchers investigated the characteristics and ‘discussion’ behaviours of 25,000 learners on nine FutureLearn MOOCs, exploring: the extent to which they made comments; whether those who comment to a lesser or greater extent have different demographic characteristics; and whether commenting is associated with completion.  Analysis showed that around a third of learners posted at least one comment, with those who are older, work part-time or not at all being more likely to post, and those who are older, work part-time or not at all, are better educated and have prior online experience making the most comments.  Making comments is also strongly associated with completing a MOOC, in particular for those “super-posters” who make many comments.

Amy Ahearn examines the flip side of reported poor MOOC completion rates by considering those (admittedly minority) tenacious students, often from less privileged circumstances, for whom successful study of multiple MOOC has transformed their professional and personal lives.  “If you dig into their stories, you start to find the innovative social entrepreneurs from Pakistan, the dedicated teachers in Cambodia, and the tenacious single mothers in the US completing their degrees.  If I were an employer, admissions counselor, or philanthropist trying to decide who to invest my resources in, these are the kind of people I’d want to find and place my bets on.”

Jeffrey Young describes Coursera’s use of around 2,500 volunteer beta testers as part of an expanded quality-control effort started in the past year.  For a typical new MOOC that goes through the process, 25 to 35 beta testers spend a week sampling lectures and quizzes and giving feedback and suggestions.  Each tester completes at least a week’s worth of the syllabus, with different testers trying different parts of each course.  Although testers are not paid, they do get the certificate fee waived if they subsequently take the whole published course.

A piece on Al-Fanar Media looks at the two major Arabic-language MOOC platforms – Edraak (1m users) and Rawaq (600k) – noting that, “In the Arab world, as universities struggle to reach thousands of students with few qualified professors, many educators feel that MOOCs still have potential”.  One limitation is the relatively small number of available courses (currently around 250) and, although students like to study in their native language, many would prefer to have their certificate in English “to help me find a job.”


Commercial News

[EdSurge; Inside Higher Ed; John Atkinson; Audrey Watters; e-Literate]

Pearson has reported a pre-tax loss of £2.6bn for 2016 – its biggest ever, due in part to lost contracts and an overall 22% decline in the US assessment market, and a “much worse than expected decline in North American higher education courseware” business, where revenues dropped 18%.  The company is looking to simplify its portfolio and hopes to sell its 47% stake in Penguin Random House, and its Chinese test-prep business, Global Education.  It has also announced the imminent demise of OpenClass and LearningStudio, marking a complete withdrawal from the Learning Management System (LMS) market by 1 Jan 18.

But as one door closes…  Pearson is partnering with Manchester Metropolitan University to offer a range of online degree programmes.  The first three of these, starting in September, will be an MBA in Strategic Health and Social Care, an MSc in International HR Management and an MSc in International Finance and Management.  Pearson will provide online course development, domestic and international student recruitment, learning management system hosting, student support and retention services, leaving MMU to provide online course content, virtual teaching and tutoring, and other student services.

Cengage, McGraw-Hill and Pearson have joined forces with Ingram and Chegg to adopt and implement a set of Anti-Counterfeit Best Practices designed to address the growing problem of counterfeit print textbooks that have “plagued” the education world in recent years.  The Anti-Counterfeit Best Practices are intended to assist distributors with combating counterfeits of print textbooks that hurt students, educators, publishers and distributors.

It doesn’t seem so long ago that Competency Based Education (CBE) was the next big thing but, in a surprise move, Ellucian has decided to end support for Brainstorm, the CBE platform it acquired from Helix Education two years ago.

Udacity has bought CloudLabs, developer of interactive coding environments that let groups collaboratively code from within their browsers.

Barnes & Noble has acquired MBS Textbook Exchange for $174.2m.  The combined companies will operate over 1,490 physical and virtual bookstores, serving more than 6 million HE students.


NMC Horizon Report (HE) 2017

[Audrey Watters; Stephen Downes]

The 14th edition of the NMC/EDUCAUSE Horizon Report (Higher Education) offers a 60-page “reference and straightforward technology-planning guide for educators, higher education leaders, administrators, policymakers, and technologists.”  As usual, the authors offer 6 key trends, 6 significant challenges and 6 developments in ed-tech over the short, medium and longer term but, to be honest, their track record of accuracy on these is far from 100%.  Probably more pertinent are their resulting “top 10 highlights”:

  1. Advancing progressive learning approaches requires cultural transformation

  2. Real-world skills are needed to bolster employability and workplace development

  3. Collaboration is key for scaling effective solutions

  4. Despite the proliferation of technology and online learning materials, access is still unequal

  5. Processes for assessing nuanced skills at a personal level are needed

  6. Fluency in the digital realm is more than just understanding how to use technology

  7. Online, mobile, and blended learning are foregone conclusions

  8. Learning ecosystems must be agile enough to support the practices of the future

  9. Higher education is an incubator for developing more intuitive computers

  10. Lifelong learning is the lifeblood of higher education

An alternative perspective comes from eLearningArt, who asked “49 of the world’s leading eLearning experts the top 3 trends they predict for 2017”.  This yielded a top five of Mobile (17 votes), Micro-learning (15.5), Video (14.5), VR (12) and Social (11).  An interesting #6 was the Decline of e-Learning – as we shift to new models of knowledge and skills acquisition using everyday tools and technologies such as YouTube and social platforms.


Alternative HE Providers


A Hepi report, Alternative providers of higher education: issues for policymakers, identified 732 alternative provider institutions.  Of these, 122 are eligible to receive student loans from the Student Loans Company and 9 of which have taught degree-awarding powers (others award via academic or professional partners); most common courses are business HNC/HND and arts and humanities degrees.  The paper examines concerns that have been raised about alternative providers, discusses their place in the English HE system and asks whether the Higher Education and Research Bill addresses alternative providers appropriately.  The authors also question whether the relevant lessons from the US and Australia have been learned.


Distance Education Price and Cost Report

[Stephen Downes]

WCET’s Distance Education Price and Cost Report has triggered a number of reactions from online commentators.  This is partly because commercial sensitivities may cast doubts over what (and how accurate) details organisations are willing to reveal and, as the report itself notes, “The simple answer to this question about price and cost is that a distance education course can cost anything you want it to cost”.  197 WCET members in the US and Canada responded, representing a range of college and funding types, although only 3.1% were solely distance providers.  We learn that 26.8% of institutions charge the same tuition and other fees for distance and campus students, while 19.0% charge less and 54.2% charge more.  However, 89.4% said their charges were not directly dependent on actual costs.  So how did distance education costs compare to those of face-to-face courses?

Distance Education Institutional Effort/Costs Compared to Face-to-Face Courses

Preparing for the Course


The Same


Accreditation and state authorizations




Technologies/software (VLE, etc)




Admissions and enrolment




Developing the Course




Design course specifications




Instructional design of course




Create learning materials




Select/obtain/purchase materials




Assuring accessibility




Teaching the Course




Delivery of course content




Facilitation of group activities








Design/select/purchase assessments




Administer/proctor assessments




Verify student identity for assessments




Evaluate/grade assessments




Supporting Students and Faculty




Student orientation and training




Faculty training




Library and other resources




Tutoring and academic course assistance




Retention services




Helpdesk for technical support




Academic Advising





The report did not seek actual $$$ costs, but did refer (p64) to a Florida State University System Board of Governors 2016 study that found “the mean incremental cost of online learning at all institutions participating in online learning is $41.48 per credit hour”, which divided into 42% for online course development and 58% for delivery.


Online MBAs: digital degrees come of age


The FT reports that, despite the growth in online learning technologies, most people completing an MBA from a leading institution still take a career break in order to study on campus.  But there are signs that the online MBA is now growing in popularity, with increasing numbers of institutions and students embracing courses that are delivered mainly or entirely online.  Enrolment numbers on programmes covered by the annual Financial Times Online MBA Ranking rose on average by 7% last year and a further five schools have been added to the 15 in the 2016 ranking.  Coursera’s Rick Levin thinks the breakthrough occurred when Wharton put a mini-version of its first-year core curriculum online, raising the profile of both the school and the programme.  Now students can study full MBAs on Coursera, with the University of Illinois offering a course over two years at 20 hours a week for about $20,000 – and with the three cohorts so far showing a 98% retention rate.


ALT Strategy 2017-2020

[Martin Weller]

The new ALT strategy 2017-2020 presents a three year plan that will underpin all of the organisation’s activities until 2020.  ALT Chair Martin Weller’s entirely unbiased opinion is that “the manner in which the strategy has been developed as significant as the strategy itself.  ALT champions open practice, and the development of the strategy was an opportunity to ‘walk the talk’.  The webinars, face to face session, and online form were all examples of how we seek to gather input from all members.”


Object Based Media


The traditional way of serving online media to users has always been to stream a single feed (e.g. an audio track or a combined video/audio) track).  But advances in technologies and bandwidth have led BBC R&D to investigate streaming separate components in parallel so that users could adapt what they see or hear according to their personal preferences.  Examples might be selectable graphical overlays on video, zooming/panning within a larger video frame (as trialled in the BBC’s Venue Explorer during the 2014 Commonwealth Games) or streaming audio as separate component feeds so users could locally select their personalised mix.  A recent example of 'audio zooming' was to stream a Radio 2 Friday Night is Music Night concert as 24 separate channels, allowing users to zoom and pan around the orchestra, “and modify the loudness and spatial position of the audio sources or objects in response” (i.e. zoom-in on the strings and they become more prominent than surrounding instruments).  Mainstreaming may be a few years away, but there must be educational potential for local customisation according to learning needs, personal preferences or disability.


LibreText: Open Access Textbooks


Ellen Wexler examines the rise of LibreText, an open access textbook publisher born out of chemistry lecturer Delmar Larsen’s frustration that the $200 textbook he’d assigned for his course in 2007 was full of errors.  But, lacking the capacity or funds to write a better book, he enlisted the help of his students.  Ten years on, LibreText involves participants from over 35 institutions, and its collection of free textbooks have around 200 million page views.  And what about QA of community-authored content?  Larsen points out that commercial books can often contain many errors but, with LibreText, “Eighty percent of the concerns that people have, we fix within a half hour from the time we get the email”.


HE Tech Landscape

[Audrey Watters; Stephen Downes]

Eduventures has released an update to its Higher Education Technology Landscape report which attempts to, “make sense of the cacophony of nearly 600 products marketed to higher education”.  It does this by classifying vendors into four major categories that align to the learner lifecycle and span 40 discrete market segments.  The report also focuses most closely on those market segments that directly impact teaching, learning, and student success.

If your specific interest is in social media tech, Ryerson’s Social Media Research Toolkit offers tabular data on 53 tools, giving a brief description, features, costs, etc.


‘High Resolution’ – a Video Series About How Digital Designers Design


High Resolution is a series of 25 videos (~1,500 mins) where masters of the digital design industry (Airbnb, Facebook, Slack, eBay, Spotify, IBM et al) discuss and explain how they approach, communicate and deploy design every single day in their businesses, and how this promotes the value of design and generates confidence and investment.




And Finally…

[The Independent; BBC]

So when did you last read Apple’s iTunes Terms and Conditions before tapping ‘Accept’?  Cartoonist R Sikoroyak has illustrated all 96 pages of the iTunes Terms and Conditions document, word for word, in the style of various classic cartoon strips (Peanuts, Dilbert, Calvin and Hobbes, etc) so now you’ve no excuse.

Prospective veterinary nursing students at Edinburgh Napier University will now encounter three Labradors (Simba, Tia and Fern, since you ask) as part of their interview panel because staff believe this helps create a "tension-free" atmosphere in the recruitment room.  “Having dogs present in interviews, in particular good quality Labradors, tests the aptitude of potential students for dealing with animals” says Jodie Smith, lecturer and programme recruitment officer.  “Their presence also helps the assessors hone in on candidates' intuitive skills for working with dogs, which make up a large proportion of the patients in any veterinary practice.”  Next month: find out how prospective criminology students cope with having a cosy chat with ‘Slasher’ Jordan as part of their interview.


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