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e-Learning Digest No 157 - Sep 17

Cloud created by:

Jim Ellis
18 September 2017

UK Conferences & Workshops

Online learning and adult education MOOCs

Self-paced online learning and adult education MOOCs and BOCs


[Peter Horrocks; THE; Jisc; Alice.Bucheler; University World News; BBC]

London Economics was commissioned by the OU, Birkbeck and London South Bank University to research and publish How is the demand for part-time higher education affected by changing economic conditions?  This 41-page report investigates the part-time HE landscape, the significant decline in numbers over the past decade, the impact of that decline on the labour market and how the reality stacks up against economic theory.  The authors note, “In the light of longer working lives, multiple career paths, ever-changing technologies and projected post-Brexit skills gaps, part-time higher education will become an even more important element of the higher education and skills jigsaw.”

Hefce’s annual report on university finances gives a stark warning that threats from Brexit, student numbers and pensions mean that financial projections from some HEIs are “over-confident” and that a noticeable minority faced serious challenges (e.g. Northampton, with total borrowing at 228% of net income; OU = 12.6%).  Tuition fees typically account for 50% of university income, but this exceeded 75% for 22 HEIs; Swansea stood out in terms of fee growth, showing an 18% rise.  Many universities also rely heavily on EU fees and research funding, with Cranfield topping that table at 10% of income.  A good indicator of ‘health’ is reckoned to be a university’s unrestricted reserves as these represent surplus money it has built up and is able to spend on whatever it decides.  In this respect, the OU rates second in the UK after Southampton and ahead of Oxbridge, with the reporter noting that just 14 institutions hold half of the total reserves for the whole UK sector.

A new report by UK2020, Timebomb: How The University Cartel is Failing Britain’s Students, well and truly pokes a pointy stick into a higher education hornets’ nest.  The authors report a “cartel of established universities that charge the same fees, have failed to deliver, stand in the way of innovation, oppose reform, resent being held to account for the quality of their teaching and have actively stifled new competition.”  The central recommendation is to expand the provision of 2 year degrees which the authors believe will help to reduce student debt and improve student satisfaction, to which the UUK response was that demand for 2 year degrees has so far been limited.

HE is the UK’s fifth largest export sector and has a target, set by the Treasury in 2015, to increase from £18bn in 2012 to £30bn by 2020.  Ludovic Highman reports that the Government seems keen to capitalise on our reputation – the UK has the most productive science base of all G7 countries, the second-highest share of mobile international students in the world and around 50% of British academic papers are co-authored with an international partner – as a political bargaining chip in broader negotiations.  However, why have no international Free Trade Agreements outside the EU ever included either education or research, and how should we regard the EU in the future – as a partner or a competitor?

The Government has unveiled a post-Brexit science position paper which calls for a far-reaching agreement that will, “strengthen science and innovation collaboration with European partners post-Brexit and would prefer to design a new type of deal than build on existing precedents”.

New data shows that fears over non-EU students outstaying their welcome in the UK are unfounded, with Home Office exit checks showing that, out of 181,024 expired student visas, 176,407 (97.4%) left the country in time.  Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable said: “As we argued repeatedly with Theresa May [during the coalition], overseas students bring huge economic benefits to universities and the broader economy.  It makes no sense for students to be included in official immigration statistics.”  A forthcoming review by the government's Migration Advisory Committee will look at the effect EU and non-EU students have on the UK labour market while they are in the UK; it will also look at the impact of tuition fees and other spending by foreign students on the national, regional and local economies.

And as concerns over new “toughened up” A-levels persist, The Telegraph reports that Britain’s leading universities are scrambling to introduce their own entrance exams.  Cambridge currently has 26, Oxford has 21 and a number of medical schools have introduced the UK Clinical Aptitude Test as a prerequisite for entry to a medical/dentistry degrees.

The OU and the National Extension College have agreed a memorandum of understanding to campaign jointly to reverse the fall in the number of adults entering higher education.


M(O)OC News

[Audrey Watters; EdTech Magazine; EdSurge; Stephen Downes]

AXA Insurance has joined Coursera For Business and will be offering more than 300 online courses in fields such as data science, digital marketing and leadership to its 165,000 employees in 64 countries.

FutureLearn will host Monash University’s first online paid-for, credit-bearing courses in Healthcare Practice.  ‘Food as Medicine: Fertility and Pregnancy’ will be the first course in a professionally-endorsed programme aimed at medical specialists, general practitioners, nurses, and those in the healthcare field looking for revalidation within a specific area of nutrition.  Subsequent courses within the programme include ‘Talking about Weight’, ‘Food and our Genome’, ‘Food, Exercise and the Gut’ and ‘Food and Inflammation’. 

“Open education pioneers” George Siemens and David Wiley are teaming up to pilot a new edX course entitled “Introduction to Open Education.”  The six-week long MOOC will touch on topics including open educational resources (OER), open pedagogy and practice, open knowledge, open research and how the field has evolved.  According to Wiley, “Twenty years ago, nobody believed there’d be any kind of sizeable, sustainable movement around people sharing openly licensed, effective learning content … But, that’s absolutely where this is all going.”

Despite occasional news items about MOOCs showing beneficial effects in Africa, uptake remains fairly low for a host of understandable reasons, not least of which is limited internet access – averaging about 9% of population across the continent.  A recent presentation looks at the growth of more accessible MOOACs (“On Air”) which deliver instruction over the radio – something successfully implemented in remote regions (notably Australia) for many decades.  The presentation itself lasts about 20m, followed by about 35m of discussion.


Worrying Ignorance of Alternative Degree Options

[StudentCrowd; The Guardian]

It was a small poll – around 1,000 learners who were asked just 3 questions by StudentCrowd on behalf of The Higher Education Commission – but it revealed disturbing levels of ignorance about alternatives to campus based degree study.  Around half (51%) thought it was not possible study part-time for their degree and 77% did not realise they could study entirely online, perhaps because 82% reported that their careers adviser did not “talk to you about studying with an alternative provider”.

Amidst all the coverage of A-level results and university applications, the CMI’s Petra Wilton bemoans the lack of press coverage of degree apprenticeships, citing a recent survey of 1,000 UK parents of 11- to 18-year-old children which found that just 20% were aware of degree apprenticeships.  Amongst parents from lower socio-economic bands, this fell to just 10%.  She notes, “There is a certain irony to this trend. Apprenticeships have historically been viewed with a certain amount of snobbery, yet it is now middle-class parents who are more likely to weigh up the cost of university and the quality of opportunities offered by apprenticeships.”

And scepticism over the value of degrees is not restricted just to parents.  Many head teachers believe that companies are starting to favour applicants with technical and business skills, which may explain why around 376,000 UK learners are enrolled in vocationally based BTEC courses.  The number of pupils at independent schools taking BTECs instead of A-levels has doubled since 2013, with less than half of those then going on to university. 


Dyson University

[The Memo]

Dyson University opened its doors last week, with 33 new students starting a four-year engineering course run in conjunction with the University of Warwick.  Unlike a traditional engineering undergraduate degree, students will be paid for their time, get hands on developing new products, leave debt-free and with a qualification from Warwick.  “What you see here is a world apart from Oxford, Cambridge or Imperial.  They have a thousand-year history and we have none” says Director Duncan Piper, “James [Dyson] has no interest in expertise, he has interest in naivety, questions and people who challenge how things work, and that’s exactly what these students come here with”.  Unusually, 27% of the successful applicants are women – nearly twice the proportion on an average UK engineering degree.


European Spend per HE Student Falling


OECD’s latest Education at a Glance report shows spending per HE student in a number of European countries such as Spain, Italy, Slovenia and Portugal is falling significantly behind the OECD average.  Even countries with reputations for strong university systems, such as Germany and Finland, are failing to keep pace with the US and UK.  According to OECD’s Andreas Schleicher, “There are a fair number of European countries…where you can see investment in higher education is declining.  They have put themselves in this bind where they are not able or willing to put in more public money and they are not allowing institutions to charge tuition”. 


National University’s Personalised Education Platform

[Inside Higher Ed]

US non-profit, National University, is working to create a personalised education platform that will combine a triumvirate of adaptive learning, competency-based learning and predictive analytics for student retention.  It aims to spend $20 million on the four-year project, but with the new platform hosting 20 general-education courses by next year, with enhancements and a broader rollout to follow.  National will also explore other emerging forms of personalised learning and has pledged to make its research publicly available.


e-Books – Rapid Evolution but a Confusing Landscape

[Campus Technology; Jisc]

Non-profit OpenStax has established itself in the US and its textbooks are expected to save students there more than $145m this academic year.  Now the publisher is hoping to do the same for UK students through a partnership, funded by the Hewlett Foundation, with the OU's UK Open Textbooks project.  “The data suggests there is a great and growing need in the UK for more books like those published by OpenStax,” said the OU’s Prof Martin Weller.  “We'll be exploring how textbooks are chosen by UK instructors, what kind of messages resonate with UK audiences, how faculty adapt open content to meet their needs and what parts of OpenStax's process can be generalized for initiatives in other countries.”

A comprehensive research report from Jisc, e-Book usage: counting the challenges and opportunities, investigates the e-book market in terms of usage trends, costs, purchase models, the role of aggregators (e.g. ProQuest) and libraries, supplier perspectives, challenges, opportunities and case studies (including the OU).  The authors report a rapidly growing arena but with the numerous options often leading to confusion.

Jisc has added another 15 e-books covering GCSE English and Maths to the initial 23 titles that were launched last year.  The collection covers all five of the main exam boards (AQA, SQA, OCR, Pearson Edexcel, WJEA) and includes practice and revision books.  Although aimed primarily at GCSE resitters in FE colleges, they may well prove useful to new undergraduates, especially mature or Access learners.


Finding Profit in US Non-Profits

[EdSurge; Campus Technology]

Open Up Resources is a “non-profit” K-12 provider that has just launched its first full maths curriculum covering Common Core standards for US grades 6-8 maths.  Freely available are lesson plans and support strategies, worksheets and activities for students, as well as resources for parents to help with homework and learning at home; print copies are also available at around $24 per student.  The company has raised $16m from philanthropies over the past 2 years, but hopes to soon break this reliance by generating $4.5m revenue in the current academic year and $40m in 2018 from print sales and “implementation services” such as staff development.

New York state’s recently announced Excelsior Scholarship scheme aims to offer tuition-free college to qualifying families – but what about that perennial US tertiary education millstone: textbook costs?  The state has just announced a further $8m to fund the development of OERs, which of course will also benefit regular students.  Denise Wydra considers how this may work, and what impact it could have on the for-profit textbook marketplace.

Not free, but cheaper.  Macmillan Learning textbooks will now be available through a rental-only model, thanks to a partnership with Chegg which allows students to rent select Macmillan Learning titles, saving up to 55% off the cost of purchasing a new textbook. Students can rent both print and digital books through the programme.  In a separate arrangement, students can also now rent select McGraw-Hill Education titles through a pay-as-you-go service from iFlipd.  The textbooks are available in both print and e-book formats for $15 a week; after eight weeks, students can opt to own the print copy or receive a $50 rebate. Or, students can simply pay for the weeks when a textbook is needed and return it when they are done


Print vs Online

[Inside Higher Ed]

We know that reading print vs online (on-screen?) is a hot topic and that there are many subtleties associated with the nature of the subject matter, reading speeds, levels of comprehension and recall, different device types, linear fiction vs more sporadic academic study, accessibility, annotation and good old personal/emotional preference.  So we need answers, not 'experts' on Inside Higher Ed saying “I do agree that we’ve got to figure this out”.  Perhaps Singer & Alexander’s (2017) mammoth meta-study might offer some answers?  No.  Despite 28 pages of thorough research, the authors conclude that, “Overall, results suggest that medium plays an influential role under certain text or task conditions or for certain readers.”


Where Next for Widening Participation and Fair Access?

[Martin Weller]

HEPI and the social mobility charity Brightside have jointly published ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers’, a collection of essays by senior higher education figures.  In his Foreword, Prof Les Ebdon challenges the new Office for Students to deliver “more progress, more quickly” and, writing on the subject of Personal Learning Accounts, the OU’s Peter Horrocks suggests the introduction of “a system of lifetime Personalised Learning Accounts to offer financial support to employees wanting skills training to suit their needs.  This would drive a real culture change in lifelong learning and help open up education and deliver the Government’s agenda.”


Dyslexic Thinking Skills Explained

[Made by Dyslexia]

Nice piece on dyslexia and learning, including ‘celeb’ videos from Richard Branson and Jamie Oliver but also a helpful breakdown of three general and three specific dyslexic thinking skills.  I was intrigued to read that dyslexics seem to be above average at everything, so would like to have seen references to some evidence to support this.


Are We Recreating Segregated Education Online?


Amy Ahearn takes a look at the growth of online learning in the US and considers whether initial promises of democratisation of access still hold true, particularly as more corporates are now becoming involved.  She asks, “Despite these promising developments, however, vast inequity still persists in the United States education system. We must ask: is designing our next-generation learning tools with such a content-driven focus on academic mastery sufficient to help people break into the middle class, when we know our economy is still so connection-driven?”


 ‘Visible Learning’ Debunked

[Stephen Downes]

John Hattie’s book, Visible Learning (2008) quickly gained traction as a definitive guide to what works and what does not in education.  Based on his own analysis of over previous 800 meta-analyses, comprising over 50,000 studies and millions of individuals, Hattie published over 135 effect sizes showing XXXXXXX.  Now statistician Pierre-Jérôme Bergeron revisits the data, concluding that, “John Hattie and his team have neither the knowledge nor the competencies required to conduct valid statistical analyses.”  In a relatively short paper which does not pull any punches, he cautions, “We cannot allow ourselves to simply be impressed by the quantity of numbers and the sample sizes; we must be concerned with the quality of the study plan and the validity of collected data.”


Use of Digital Devices in Face-to-Face Learning

[Campus Technology; KQED]

Campus Technology’s second annual survey of US student device use finds that laptops are the most popular technology used by students (57%), followed by smartphones (33%) and tablets (6%), although 21% of faculty members ban device use in their sessions.

Beth Holland looks at the impact of such devices on learning, citing two recent studies that show a detrimental effect on assessment scores for ‘lecture-style courses’.  However, she points out that these relate to conventional teaching approaches rather than those that have been devised or adapted to take advantage of digital affordances, noting: “If teachers recognize the power of digital tools, and their responsibility to help students learn to use them, then digital note taking isn’t just ‘one more thing to do’.  Instead, it becomes an important skill that could help students to engage with ideas, synthesize concepts and build the critical thinking skills that they will need to be successful learners in the future.”


Technology Sales Forecasts

[TechCrunch; Campus Technology]

Latest data from Gartner suggests the global wearables market (smartwatches, fitness trackers, headsets, body-cams, etc) will grow by 16.7% this year to 310.4m devices, generating $30.5bn in revenue.  The analyst expects about a third of this revenue to come from smartwatches, no doubt helped by the newly announced Apple Watch Series 3.  Gartner also expects around 30% of smartwatch shipments to be destined for the children aged 2-13, with makers targeting parents who don’t yet want their child to have a fully-fledged smartphone.

Meanwhile IDC looked at the personal computing market, predicting a slow decline with an overall five-year compound annual growth rate of -1.7% for all devices through to 2021.  But there are variations within that broad category with, for example, detachable tablets and convertible notebooks showing a five-year CAGR of more than 14% and ultraslim notebooks not far behind at 11.8%.  IDC also notes that things could change if applications such as VR/gaming start to take off in a big way.

Unusually for Apple, the iPhone 8 and iPhone X features were fairly well leaked/predicted.  Perhaps the most surprising thing was the dollar:pound parity in UK pricing, meaning a ‘basic’ (sorry Apple) $999 64GB iPhone X will cost you £999, despite the exchange rate currently sitting at around $1.30.



  • Google has unveiled ARCore, a new developer platform for AR apps which can determine the position and orientation of the phone to accurately place virtual objects.  [Campus Technology]

  • Qualcomm’s new depth-sensing camera tech is designed for VR and face scanning.  [TechCrunch]

  • …and Mozilla’s WebVR API provides support for exposing VR devices (e.g. Oculus Rift; HTC Vive goggles) to web apps.  [Mozilla]

  • Web Junction describes itself as “the learning place for libraries” and it currently offers nearly 30 online courses, freely available to library workers.  [Rosie Jones]

  • UCL Prof Dilly Fung’s new open access book, A Connected Curriculum for Higher Education, promotes new initiatives relating to engaging, research-based education.  [Alison Major]

  • Google Keep (Android or iOS) is like Apple’s ‘Notes’ on steroids - handwritten notes, audio, photos, reminders, coloured labels, collaboration, etc.  [Sue Beckingham]

  • The next major update to Windows 10, due on 17 Oct, will include support for AR/VR goggles, updated OneDrive, an improved Game Mode and new accessibility features.  [TechCrunch]

  • Mandy Kennedy describes 21 Google ‘tricks and shortcuts’ that exploit features built in to the search engine.  [22 Words]

  • Microsoft and Amazon have announced an agreement that will enable their Cortana and Alexa voice assistants to talk to and control each other.  [TechCrunch]

  • UCISA has a number of specialist groups, including Digital Education (use of learning technologies in HE) and Digital Capabilities (IT training and skills development).  [UCISA]

  • Google has updated Google Docs, Sheets and Slides with improved version control, cross-platform editing, workflow customization and new customizable templates.  [THE Journal]


And Finally…


Researchers in Tasmania have found that skipping your morning coffee before a lecture or an important meeting will not only make you less alert, but the cravings you experience will impair your ability to memorise new information.  They also found that their participants (N=55) were unaware of how caffeine cravings had affected them – suggesting that if we try to learn things when desperate for a coffee we are at risk of being overconfident about what we’ve taken in.

Someone who looks like he’s had more than enough coffee is 18-year-old Swiss skier Andri Ragettli as he completes a gym workout as part of his Olympic preparation.

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