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e-Learning Digest No 165 - May 18

Cloud created by:

Jim Ellis
16 May 2018

UK Conferences & Workshops  

Online learning and adult education MOOCs

Self-paced online learning and adult education MOOCs and BOCs


IBM’s Cognitive Class offers 60 short, self-paced, badged training courses on topics relating to Machine Learning, AI and Big Data, plus access to tool sets used within them.  Similarly, Microsoft’s AI School offers modules of varying length and depth on AI, Analytics, Azure and more.  [Tony Hirst]

For potential users of Adobe Captivate, Paul Wilson has compiled more than 140 video tutorials that are freely available on his YouTube channel.  [Stephen Downes]





[The Independent; The Guardian; The Telegraph; Wonkhe]

Ucas said it is “extremely concerned” by figures which show that black students seeking a place at university are 21 times more likely to have their applications investigated for suspected false or missing information than their white counterparts.  Ucas’s own figures show that one in every 102 applications from black applicants was investigated compared to just one in every 2,146 from white British applicants, triggering accusations from Labour of “institutional racism” in the HE system and demands for urgent action to stamp out “racial profiling”.

A report last year by HEPI estimated that European student numbers would drop by as much as 60% post-Brexit and many universities are now drawing up lists of courses that could face closure and lobbying the government to save them by changing its policy on student fees.  Although the number of European students studying in the UK has remained buoyant since the referendum (135,000 last year), it is expected to crash when Britain leaves the EU next year and fees for Europeans rise from UK to ‘international’ levels of up to £20,000 on some courses, with no access to a loan.

Fears of an academic "Brexodus" have been exposed as a myth after figures revealed that 25% more academics arrived in the UK than went home in 2017.  In all 6,801, academics arrived from other EU countries to work in British universities in 2017 compared with 5,416 EU staff who left.  Of the 116 universities who responded to an information request by The Spectator, 75 institutions were ‘net gainers’, 34 saw a net loss and seven had no overall change.

As OfS gets up and running, HEPI, together with the mentoring charity Brightside, has brought together 35 leading thinkers in the field of social mobility and education to jointly produce Reaching the parts of society universities have missed: A manifesto for the new Director of Fair Access and Participation.  The views therein are as diverse as the contributors – ranging from financial (maintenance grants; fee waivers) through to custom and practice (cease unconditional offers; end unpaid student and graduate internships).


M(O)OC News

[Audrey Watters]

In a blog post earlier this month entitled Furthering the edX Mission, Forging a Future Path, the company states, “We believe that we need to move toward a financial model that allows edX and our partners to achieve sustainability and we acknowledge that means moving away from our current model of offering virtually everything for free.”  Well it was fun while it lasted.


Commercial News

[Leo, EdSurge; Inside Higher Ed]

According to research by Gartner, by 2022, nearly 80% of organisational skills will have to be reprioritised or revisited because of digital business transformation.  This may help explain the acquisition by the UK’s Learning Technologies Group ­­- parent company of Leo Learning, gomo and others - of PeopleFluent, a provider of cloud-based integrated talent solutions.  The acquisition will provide LEO with access to PeopleFluent’s talent management platform, workplace collaboration software, on-demand video technology, as well as the ability to manage and measure leadership development and coaching and mentoring.

Having overseen savage cuts and headline-grabbing divestments of what were previously regarded as core components of its business, Pearson boss John Fallon has moved the company from a $3.3bn loss in 2016 to a profit last year.  EdSurge features an interview with Fallon in which he explains the shake up and its effects and speaks about the likely future for a much more digital Pearson that is more responsive to customer wants and needs: “This is the Spotify generation.  Students will pay for use.  They don’t want to buy to own, and they only want to pay to use things that are directly relevant to their course and their outcomes.”

And it seems Pearson are not alone in that thinking.  VitalSource is collaborating with McGraw-Hill Education to ensure the latter’s adaptive courseware is seamlessly available to students at more than 500 US institutions through VitalSource's "Inclusive Access" delivery method.

And another.  Five years after filing for bankruptcy, Cengage is back, it’s more digital and it’s about to launch a new on-demand service called Cengage Unlimited that gives students access to the complete collection of the company’s online textbooks for about $120 a semester (or $180 a year).

There are also signs that publishers are responding to long-held claims that eTextbook purchase costs are too high.  Since 2016, the average price of eTextbooks on VitalSource has fallen from $56.36 to $38.65 (-31%); more specifically, the average maths eTextbook has decreased by almost 50%.  Another US distributor, RedShelf, confirmed a similar price drop, averaging -26% since 2016.  And is this because publishers are nice people?  No, according to Redshelf’s COO Tom Scotty, it’s because they are desperate to capture market share.


Online Learning and Disruptive Change at the Open University

[Tony Bates]

Tony Bates, one time IET academic and now retired (ho, ho) keynoted at the recent OU eSTEeM conference.  He comments in a blog post on UK funding for PT HE, what’s happening at the OU and the mix of comments and views he picked up from OU staff.  He surmises that, “many of the teaching staff have not really ‘got it’ with regard to digital learning.  In many cases, print still remains the core teaching technology, and where online is heavily used, it is often just a print model moved online, with a heavy emphasis on content transmission” noting that, “one of the many reasons I emigrated to Canada in 1989 was that I got frustrated at the inability of myself and others at the OU … to get the OU to take online learning seriously.”  Comments back to Tony please, not me.


How Open University Works: An Insider’s Perspective

[Ian Blackham]

Class Central carries a piece by recent OU computer science graduate Manoel Cortes Mendez describing his OU study experience.  It’s a long and detailed description, aimed at prospective (particularly US) students which paints a positive picture of the OU, its staff and its methods, “from enrolment to graduation”.  It seems to be an accurate portrayal from his computing perspective, although the experiences of those in other subject areas may differ.  For example, “The OU remains a firm believer in traditional course material, which they’ve been producing in-house since 1971 and is included in the course fee.  So a few weeks before classes start, you’ll receive a UK-stamped package containing textbooks, DVDs, USB drives, and sometimes, special equipment”.  Mendez was undoubtedly pleased with his OU experience and is now part-way through Georgia Tech’s Online MSc in Computer Science.


The Effects of Motivation on Online Students' Reading Behavioural Patterns


The latest issue of IRRODL contains its usual good and relevant mix of papers relating to open, online and distance learning, including one by Sun et al on the effects of motivation on online students' reading behavioural patterns.  In some respects it confirms the obvious – students with high reading duration (HD) tended to be more seriously engaged in learning activities and were less likely to fail to complete the unit test.  However, the behaviours of students with low reading duration and low motivation (LDLM) and low reading duration but high motivation (LDHM) appeared quite similar, including a tendency, after passing the first test, to bypass the next content and quickly move onto the next test.  However, further analysis revealed key differences in the effects of online multitasking reading, with LDHM students (who might equate to time poor OU students?) more easily able to switch back from multi-tasking to the learning materials and refocus their learning than those in the HD and LDLM groups.


The Envisioning Report for Empowering Universities

[Gerald Evans]

This second Envisioning Report for Empowering Universities from EADTU comprises 17 papers on “latest trends and developments in new modes of teaching.”  This includes a healthy sprinkling from OU authors:

  • Analytics for Action: using data analytics to support students in improving their learning outcomes (Rafa Hidalgo)

  • Excellence in e-learning: the key challenges for universities (Karen Kear & Jon Rosewell)

  • A learning-centred blended model for professional doctorates (Inma Alvarez)

  • Open courses for facilitating professional practice and development between communities of practice (Andy Lane)


EDUCAUSE (NMC) Horizon Report Preview

[Campus Technology]

Having acquired the rights to the NMC’s Horizon project earlier this year, Educause has now published a preview of the 2018 HE Edition of the Horizon Report.  It includes trends driving ed-tech adoption as:

  • Growing focus on measuring learning (1-2 years); and

  • Proliferation of open education resources (3-5 years)

Solvable challenges that are impeding technology adoption include:

  • Providing authentic learning that relates to real-world problems and work situations; and

  • Improving digital literacy

And ed-tech developments that will be important for HE include:

  • Analytics technologies and makerspaces (

  • Adaptive learning technologies and AI (2-3 years); and

  • Mixed reality and robotics (4-5 years)


The State of Higher Education

[Campus Technology]

Grant Thornton has issued its seventh annual report on the state of [US] higher education.  Topics include building quality into IT systems, preparing for disruption, outsourcing via a shared services consortium and preparing for social media.  In the case of the latter, they note that institutions that have "adequately prepared for the worst by putting into place proactive prevention strategies and response scenario action plans will be better off than those that simply wait and react."  Among the components of an action plan should be coverage for how the communications department responds to emerging issues, including escalation procedures.


Adult Students Prefer Online Programmes

[The Chronicle; Campus Technology]

Gasp.  Online learning programme provider Pearson offers a free report that shows that adult students prefer online programmes.  Not only that but it seems that adult learning is a tricky area, beset by “a dearth of data about their priorities and needs” and so “partnerships can be appealing, specifically with companies that serve as online program managers (OPMs)”.  Such as Pearson?

But is there any truth in the claimed benefits of working with OPMs?  Research by Eduventures for the (US) National Research Center for College & University Admissions (NRCCUA) suggests there is, and that institutions who partner with OPMs have seen online enrolment between 2012-16 increase significantly above that of peers: 43% vs 15% (UG) and 34% vs 23% (PG).  BTW, don’t let the graph title confuse you – it means ‘autumn’ rather than ‘decline’.


Online Courses Don’t Necessarily Cost Less

[EdSurge; Inside Higher Ed]

An online course is more than just a website, so although larger institutions may be able to deliver online courses for less than traditional ones, not all providers have the infrastructure or student base to allow real savings while maintaining high quality.  For some, it actually costs more.  A recent study by Arizona State University, “Making Digital Learning Work”, compared the efforts and cost savings made by six US institutions.  However, all six have made strategic efforts and invested in central units to support their endeavours, contributing to a reduced cost per credit hour.  The question this raises is how different the findings would have been if the study had included small-players who deliver high-quality face-to-face programs but lack the ability to invest in an extensive online infrastructure.


Cut off from HE

[The Hechinger Report; Congressional Research Service]

Access to higher education is a luxury many adults just don’t have.  Miles from their nearest campus, rural Americans with poor internet connections are left wanting.  Efforts by several universities to reach out and cater for these students have been impacted by budget cuts, but hope is not lost.  Last month a new Farm Bill came into effect making provision for improved rural broadband access.  In the meantime, where funding allows, initiatives to provide students with fully loaded iPads may provide an alternative for some students, such as the one used by UNC School of Medicine.


Tech it or Leave it

[Education Technology]

Technology is advancing at such a pace that the education sector is at risk of being left behind.  In order to help them make the most of new technologies, Microsoft has been working with several UK education providers, supporting innovation and preparing for the next wave of change.  With further developments in AI and mixed reality set to change the way we teach, we must tech it because leaving it isn't a viable option.


Too Much of the Wrong Support Can Impair Course Performance


A study from Pearson casts doubts over the benefits claimed by some educators of allowing students to master a topic by taking a test again and again until they do well.  Externally audited, efficacy research about one of the company’s apps (MyLab Math) shows a significant correlation between increased retesting and lower overall course performance.  Students on three different campuses of Arizona State University used MyLab Math to help build maths skills.  They then use the QuizMe app and, if they don't demonstrate mastery, they are taken back to a “study plan” – but the data showed those taking the tests multiple times to get higher scores actually earned lower course grades in the end.  Pearson’s Emily Lai believes, “one possible explanation could be that the lower-skilled learners were simply repeating those QuizMe activities over and over again until they were able to achieve a relatively high score even without fully mastering the concepts."

You might also think that giving students access to a platform containing information about the distribution of prior students’ grades, the amount of study effort they reported, the percentage who dropped out and other information could all serve to improve performance – researchers from Stanford found this was not the case.  Students, particularly new ones, who accessed the information saw a decline in their performance, with prior grade information having the greatest detrimental effect: seeing previous high scores “may make students overconfident about the investment of work they need to do well”.  The researchers cautioned that universities will have to think hard about how the “amount and form in which that information is provided enhances academic endeavour - or undermines it.”


Making More of Less: a Better Digital Solution for Students.



An endless supply of digital tools, digital solutions and digital opportunities doesn’t help students.  What they actually need is an overall >better use of digital.  Technology for technology’s sake doesn’t work.  Students need to see clear benefits of using technology and, even more importantly, they need better skills preparation to help them make the most of their learning and employability skills.


Ethical AI Developments

[Campus Technology; Tech Crunch]

Billed as an accessibility feature to support deaf students, Microsoft’s AI-powered speech and language technology goes even further and could also provide support for students with English as their second language.  The system that transcribes live events in real-time can display the captions on students’ laptops or mobile devices in a different language to the live presentation.

The ethics of artificial intelligence has long been a subject of debate, but last month the UK parliament published a committee report about the economic, ethical and social implications of AI.  The report calls for action to combat AI bias, recommending that developers come from diverse backgrounds, and AI training systems go through rigorous tests to prevent the possibility of AIs making prejudicial decisions.


Mixed Observations of an Online Education Report

[Inside Higher Ed]

Supporters and opponents of online education get their say on the findings of a glowing report on the online offerings by six institutions in the US.  In the >Inside Higher Ed article, the variation of opinions reflect the subjective nature of the topic, so it seems we are a long way from a consensus.


Collaborative activities can work for online students

[Inside Higher Ed]

The physical distance between online students can be a barrier to group work, but with careful planning, facilitation and the right tools, students can overcome the challenge and form effective groups.  Tactics to drive success vary, but building activities that reward participation through assessment is one method of increasing engagement that has worked at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.


Linking learning to work and life gives students sense of value

[Campus Technology]

A recent survey found that students who study courses directly related to their work are more likely to feel they received high-quality education.  They are also more likely to feel they received value for money.  Relevance and the development of skills that are useful on a day-to-day basis are likely to play a part, but the results go further, linking these feelings with a sense of ‘thriving’ and well-being.


Can You Really Revise While Chatting Online?


It’s exam time and, just as every student knows it’s absolutely okay to revise in parallel with music, TV and social media, so every parent knows it’s absolutely not.  So what does the research tell us? 

Tom Bennett, a teacher, parent and the government's adviser on behaviour in school, says it's a complete "myth" that teenagers can study while multi-tasking between social media and online entertainment.  Revision needs focus and concentration, he says, but this is going to be scuppered by the relentless, attention-seeking demands of social media as users feel the need to constantly check for updates and responses.  An MIT study of pupils in the Boston area found "a link between greater media multi-tasking and worse academic outcomes in adolescents".  And academics also found similar results when they looked at achievement in schools in England that had banned mobile phones and so created at least part of the day away from messaging and social media, concluding that "not only does pupil achievement improve as a result of a ban, but also that low achieving and low income pupils gain the most".

However, Dr Sandra Leaton Gray, senior lecturer in education at the UCL Institute of Education, says it's a mistake for parents to barge in and demand that devices are switched off.  "The clever way round it is to say, 'How are things going online?' Ask them if they're being distracted".  Good luck with that.


Digging into a Data Gold Mine

[The Chronicle of HE]

Recent news about Facebook data use may have put an end to Cambridge Analytica, but not to academic use of Facebook’s infamous data gold mine.  Academics in the US are working with Facebook to design a new model for industry–academic partnerships.  By allowing access to all the data available, the aim is to let researchers decide what research questions the data answers for the purpose of ‘doing good’, but for who’s good?


Peer Mentoring for Instructional Designers

[Inside Higher Ed]

EDUCAUSE and Pennsylvania State University are sponsoring a peer mentoring initiative for instructional designers in the US.  The ID2ID program, which is entering its second year, enables mentor-mentee and buddy-buddy relationships to create nationwide community and to facilitate idea sharing.


Online courses associated with higher retention and graduation rates

[Campus Technology]

An Arizona State University study has linked online courses with higher rates of retention and graduation.  In the study of six US institutions where students have the choice of online, blended or face-to-face teaching, results have also shown earlier finishes.  However, other factors may contribute to these findings—on average, online students tend to be older than their campus-based counterparts.


Testing the Learning-by-Teaching Effect


Researchers have investigated the theory that teaching improves the teacher’s learning because it compels the teacher to retrieve what they’ve previously studied.  Volunteer students (N= 124) studied material about soundwaves, after which they were divided into four groups:

  1. Being filmed alone while they delivered a lesson on the study material without notes

  2. Teaching verbatim from a set script

  3. Writing down all they could remember from the material

  4. Completing multiplication arithmetic (control group)

The participants were subjected to a surprise test one week later in which Groups 1 and 3 were found to exhibit comparable levels of comprehension, as per the researchers’ expectations, outperforming those in groups 2 and 4.  The researchers said their results suggest that “the benefits of the learning-by-teaching strategy are attributable to retrieval practice; that is, the robust learning-by-teaching strategy works but only when the teaching involves retrieving the taught materials.”


Digital India Includes New Universities

[University World News]

India’s next phase of Digital India is underway as the government aims to make the country a $1 trillion digital economy by 2022.  As part of this, the Indian government has started the process of formulating a policy for accredited digital universities across the country, enabling greater numbers of people to access low-cost, good quality, flexible, high-level education.



[Stephen Downes]

Piazza is a free collaborative Q&A platform which, although it may initially look like email (small list of items/questions on left, larger response area on right) actually functions more like a wiki, meaning the response to a question can be edited and fine-tuned rather than generating lengthy strings, and instructors can comment or endorse separately.  It also includes a LaTeX editor, highlighted syntax and code blocking, polls, anonymity to encourage shy contributors and integration with major VLEs.



  • The Australasian Journal of Educational Technology (AJET) Vol 34, No 2 is a special Issue comprising 7 papers on Learning Design.  [Rebecca Galley]

  • As two US universities approach the magical 100,000 online students, there are signs the University of Phoenix may be about to dip below this figure.  [Inside Higher Ed]

  • Leeds College of Music has developed a music technology AR app to support students in the studio by offering layered AR information about the recording console.  [Jisc]

  • Pew reports that a declining number of US adults believe the internet has been mostly a good thing for them and society.  [Audrey Watters]

  • The BBC’s Global Experience Language (GEL) project offers a useful bunch of reusable design patterns for web and mobile apps.  [John Whitehead]

  • Paper is a free iOS app which allows you to sketch, make handwritten notes, create diagrams, graphs and storyboards, and add annotations.  [Sussex TEL]

  • …and Paste is a presentation tool for collaborative slide creation and easy embedding of rich media and services such as Google Apps, Instagram and Twitter.  [Sussex TEL]

  • Google Research has morphed in to Google AI, reflecting the growing prominence of machine learning in Google’s operation and developments.  [Steve Parkinson]

  • The BBC has made over 16,000 sound effects (.wav) available to play or download.  They remain BBC copyright, but may be used for personal, educational or research purposes.  [BBC]

  • Jisc has released a beta of its updated responsive-design OpenDOAR global directory of academic open access repositories.  [Jisc]

  • The Atlantic reports that, for the first time in two decades, a huge number of books, films, and other works are about to escape US copyright law.  [Audrey Watters]

  • The $5 gravity-powered lamp provides cheap lighting and USB charging for those in the world’s poorest areas, and each slow drop of its weight generates 20 mins’ light.  [Chris Nelson]

  • How important is UX design?  Apple’s redesigned iOS11 App Store saw browse-driven downloads rise around 10% of all downloads to over 15%.  [TechCrunch]

  • In a bid to help the 260m children without access to schools, Gordon Brown is launching a $10bn scheme to widen access to education in some of the world's poorest countries.  [BBC]

  • Tota11y is an accessibility toolkit that helps visualize how your site performs with assistive technologies “from your friends at Khan Academy”.  [EdSurge]


And Finally…

[John Whitehead]

The lack of an Oxford comma cost a US dairy company $4m in a legal dispute with its drivers about overtime pay.  State law requires time-and-a-half pay for each hour worked after 40 hours, but with exemptions for:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish products; and

(3) Perishable foods.

The drivers argued that “packing for shipment or distribution” meant packing, and that they were entitled to 4 years’ worth of overtime pay for the distribution (whereas a comma after “shipment” would have made it clear they were not).  Judges found in their favour, although the state legislature has now revised the clause as: “The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of…”


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