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e-Learning Digest No 121 - Sep 14

Cloud created by:

Jim Ellis
15 September 2014

UK Conferences & Workshops 




Focus on … e-Reading

[Stephen Downes; The Chronicle; Campus Technology; Publishers Weekly]

Defining an accurate student position on learning from print vs screen is fraught with danger.  For start, ‘on-screen’ doesn’t mean now what it used to (i.e. probably a vertical 17” monitor placed a couple of feet away on a desk), and many of the headline facts and figures for e-books refer more to sequential reading of fiction than studying from textbooks.  OU surveys tell us that around 95% of our students, “enjoy learning through reading printed text” but only around 50% “enjoy learning through reading text online”.  We don’t ask the question but presumably those figures relate to ‘dense’ text rather than reading shorter activities, quiz questions, forum posts, etc.  We might also presume that those who love print also benefit occasionally being able to search or copy/paste from electronic text (but may not necessarily regard this as “enjoyable”).  So, what other relevant evidence is there to help us assess the situation?

Stavanger University’s Anne Mangen conducted a study comparing reading an ‘upsetting’ short story on paper and on iPad, in which she found that paper readers reported higher measures of empathy and immersion than iPad readers.  In a more recent study, 25 participants read a 28-page story on a Kindle, and 25 read the same story in print.  They were then tested on aspects of the story including objects, characters and settings, revealing that performance was largely similar, except when it came to the timing of events in the story.  “The Kindle readers performed significantly worse on the plot reconstruction measure, ie, when they were asked to place 14 events in the correct order.”

Prof Naomi Baron bemoans a growing reluctance on the part of students to read long-form text in any format, suggesting that e-readers and tablets have made matters worse – they may be fine for novels, but not for text we intend to “muse over or reread”.  She surveyed university students in the US, Germany and Japan, finding that, if cost was not a factor, “If a text is long, 92 percent would choose hard copy. For shorter texts, it’s a toss-up.”  There is also the attendant distraction factor, with 85% of US students indicating they were likely to multitask when reading on-screen, compared to just 26% while reading in print (and there is evidence that multitasking “poses a significant distraction” to academic performance).


Xconomy reports that educational publishers are moving much more into interactive e-books as potential sources of profit and Pew Internet research tells us that 37% of US adults aged 18-29 have read an e-book in the past year.  In a recent survey of 500 US students sponsored by e-book supplier Vital Source, 62% stated that they have used interactive textbooks with features such as video, audio and quizzes, and 67% say their professors frequently recommend they purchase the e-text versions of textbooks and other course materials.  The top benefit (31% of students) is that these make lessons easier to understand; 23% say they help them complete assignments more quickly and 21% believe they help them stay more organized. 

Textbook price comparison site CampusBooks found that nearly half of the 1,072 US undergraduates they surveyed had been assigned an e-textbook for a course.  However, only 44% were very or somewhat happy using an e-book, with 39% very or somewhat unhappy. The researchers noted that reported dissatisfaction with e-books appears to rise as students progress through school but, despite this, adoption also increases – probably for financial reasons.  The survey also asked how students take notes in class. Around 90% use paper and 35% use a laptop, but only 9% append the textbook itself, possibly mindful of the potential textbook resale market in the US.  But Mueller & Oppenheimer caution against taking notes on laptops because it results in shallower processing due to a tendency to transcribe verbatim, whereas those students who took notes longhand tend to process information and reframe it in their own words – leading to better performance in conceptual question tests.

And, in a Hewlett Packard online survey of 527 college students, 57% said they preferred print materials to e-books when studying.  When citing reasons for their preference, 54% cited “ease of use” and 35% “note-taking ability” as a reason for preferring print.  Only 6% favoured e-books for their note-taking ability and 5% for their interactivity (which, we’re often led to believe, is the holy grail of e-book design).


And, regardless of preferences and opinions, what about actual learning effectiveness?  In a recent study, Margolin et al (2013) invited ninety participants read five factual and five fiction 500-word passages of text.  Thirty read from A4 paper, 30 used a Kindle and 30 read PDFs on a PC.  All scored around 75% in MCQ comprehension tests, regardless of medium/device. 



[THE; The Chronicle; Audrey Watters; The Boston Globe; TechCrunch]

Stanford’s Prof John Mitchell welcomes the impact that MOOCs have had on the world of education over the past couple of years but he fears they may not remain free for too much longer.  This is for obvious economic reasons relating to the costs of development and support, but also for practical ones such as abating high drop-out rates.  “One of the issues we have with MOOCs is that it can be very difficult to set up successful group projects when people keep leaving the course,” he said.  “Maybe if there’s payment or an application process or courses targeted at a particular community we will have less attrition and more cohesion in the group.”

But how confident can we be that students will pay even modest fees?  Australia’s University of New England (UNE) has shut down its pioneering pay-for MOOC because it could not make it pay.  Whilst the basic online courses were free, students were required to pay A$495 to do an exam, A$35 an hour for a group tutorial and A$150 an hour for private tutoring.  “It was a very good experiment for us but it was an experiment,” said vice-chancellor, Prof Annabelle Duncan.  “While MOOCs will continue to be offered I am sure by some of the very big providers around the world it’s not something that a university like UNE would go at alone,” she said.

Sebastian Thrun solved Udacity’s economic conundrum by ‘selling out’, whereas Coursera remains largely free apart from the $50 Signature Track fee students can pay to take verified exams and earn a certificate of completion.  However, Coursera is now also embarking on paid partnerships with organisations such as MasterCard, AT&T and Shell, as they seek content for employee training and development.  At MasterCard, for example, a course on web applications has been offered to 2,500 employees, whilst a behavioural economics class taught by Duke professor Dan Ariely has been offered to 300 marketing staff.

An interesting new take on dropout rates comes from Coursera’s Daphne Koller, who claims that, of the people who actually aim to finish the course, 70% do so.  In an interview at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference earlier this month, she also flagged a move towards more self-directed learning, and classes that have less rigid (and distant) start dates – Coursera has found that if a course starts within a week of a student enrolling, engagement doubles.  And how do employers regard MOOCs?  Koller noted that around 70% of students with a Coursera credential list it on their LinkedIn profile, and she believes that around 60-70% of employers would look at the credential of an applicant favourably.

edX is expanding its reach beyond HE and has begun offering 26 courses geared toward high school students.  The courses were created by 14 institutions – including MIT, Georgetown and Rice universities, the University of California and Boston University – and will cover subjects including computer science, calculus, geometry, algebra, English, physics, biology, chemistry, Spanish, French, history, statistics, and psychology.

EdCast is the latest new kid on the block, with aspirations to be simultaneously massive and intimate, private and public.  It is essentially a service provider built on top of Open edX code, and a first example of what an EdCast product may look like comes from the UN-backed Sustainable Development Solutions Network – which has more than 200 university and organizational members and now has its own online education portal,  EdCast EdCast claims to be finalising deals with “dozens” of groups of institutions, the number of which “may total in the hundreds.”

A FutureLearn MOOC offering English language lessons from the British Council has attracted over 100,000 registrations from students in 178 countries.  Spain accounts for the biggest group of students but there are also large groups from the UK, Burma, Russia, Colombia, China, Vietnam and India – and around a third of these are studying via mobile phones.

The Indian Institute of Technology and the Commonwealth of Learning have teamed up to offer a novel MOOC that is focused on the design of the course itself.  The four-week MOOC on MOOCs: What you need to know about massive open online courses is aimed at addressing the nuts and bolts of designing and running a MOOC.


Commercial News

[Inside Higher Ed; Elliott Masie; Audrey Watters]

Anthem Education, a for-profit chain of US colleges and career institutes has filed for bankruptcy.  The company had 41 campuses, 14 of which it has already sold to International Education Corporation.  It hopes to keep 28 campuses up and running (presumably including the ones IEC is acquiring) although the bankruptcy filing immediately closes off the federal student aid which accounts for nearly 90% of Anthem’s income.

Skillsoft has announced its intent to purchase SumTotal Systems, declaring themselves “highly complementary”.  Skillsoft has 6,000 customers and 19m users of its 60,000 learning assets (which include 6,000 interactive courses and over 40,000 e-books and videos) whilst SumTotal’s learning management and talent management systems are used by 3,500 customers with 45m registered users.

Australia’s Looop provides a mobile-friendly platform to enable small-to-medium sized business to deliver training online.  The company has just raised $2 million to fuel expansion into the UK, as well as add a native iOS app to its newly-launched app for devices running Android.  The company is tapping into the notion of ‘lean’ or ‘micro-learning’ by offering learning in bite-sized chunks, with easily tested learning outcomes.

Tim O’Reilly has announced that O’Reilly has bought Pearson’s 50% share of the Safari Books Online joint venture, making Safari a wholly owned subsidiary of O’Reilly Media Inc, but with Pearson remaining a key strategic content partner.  Safari began in 2001 with 600 titles but now offers its subscribers access to over 25,000 books and more than 10,000 hours of video training from more than 200 publishers and other content providers.

Amazon is spending about 20% of its petty cash to buy game streaming service Twitch for close to $1bn.


Majority of Scottish Academics Set to Vote ‘No’


A survey by THE suggests that a majority of Scottish academics are set to vote ‘no’ in this week’s independence referendum (54.8% vs 41.2%).  However, there are some notable splits in intentions when viewed by specialism (STEM = 69% ‘No’; humanities = 44% ‘No’) and region (e.g. Glasgow = 39% ‘No’; Dundee = 77% ‘No’).

However, according to 1,048 young people (16-17) who attended the BBC's Big Debate in Glasgow, 97% of them thought tuition fees was the most important issue to them, followed by the economy (94%), currency (88%), welfare (88%) and pensions (84%).


Labour Proposes Technical Universities

[BBC; Stephen Downes; edsurge; Audrey Watters]

Shadow universities minister Liam Byrne is calling for technical universities to be created as part of a blueprint to reshape the HE system to support a hi-tech, high-income economy.  These would offer more options for young people than traditional degree courses; they would operate in partnership with industry and would support local enterprise zones.  “We've got to build a bigger knowledge economy, home to better-paid jobs and open to anyone with talent, no matter whether they want an academic or a technical path in life,” said Mr Byrne.  He called for there to be a “variety of ladders” into HE, including “learn-while-you-earn” courses which would allow people to upgrade their skills while still working.

The need for such an approach is supported by evidence from the Manpower Group, whose Talent Shortage Survey surveyed 38,000 employers worldwide, finding that 35% reported difficulty in filling jobs due to lack of suitable and available talent.  McKinsey estimates that the number of skillsets needed in the workforce increased from 178 in Sep 09 to 924 in Jun 12 and the US National Center for Education Statistics projects that by 2020, 42% of all college students will be 25 years of age or older as more working adults seek to develop new skills for the rapidly emerging new technologies and jobs.

Purdue University’s Polytechnic Institute has been awarded $500,000 to create a new cross-disciplinary bachelor's degree based on demonstrated mastery of concepts and skills rather than performance measured only at fixed calendar intervals of classroom time.  According to Purdue President Mitch Daniels, the course, “will allow students to move as fast as their ability and diligence will permit, reducing their time to degree and their costs as they do so.”


What Will a Liberal Arts Education Look Like in 50 Years?


The great and the good at this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival were asked what will a liberal arts education look like in 50 years?  Sebastian Thrun expects that education will move beyond the constraints of those bright college years towards lifelong learning, and Howard Gardner thinks, “We won't have liberal arts and sciences at all 50 years from now unless we really understand how to save what's good, but reinvent what's new and needed”.


Cal State’s Tablet-Only Courses

[Campus Technology]

California State University has launched a range of DISCOVERe tablet-only courses, on which students receive a $500 grant towards the purchase of the device from the campus bookstore (so far, 34% have chosen an Asus Memo Pad, but 61% have chipped in some of their own money and bought an iPad Air).  Students can also use their own tablets as long as they meet a minimum specification.  This first wave of the project will encompass 1,200 students, 33 faculty members and about 40 course sections, with plans for around 5,000 students in the next school year.


Khan Academy Lite


EdSurge wonders how Khan Academy could be “the world's teacher” if 4.5bn people have no Internet access.  But all that changed with the release of an offline version, KA Lite.  Less than two years later, it's been been downloaded over 3,000 times in more than 120 countries and actively deployed in over 30 schools, orphanages, and correctional facilities.


Horizon Report – Library Edition

[Audrey Watters; Stephen Downes]

The Library-flavoured 2014 NMC Horizon Report has just been published.  It looks at developments, trends and challenges affecting adoption of technology for academic and research libraries – grouping challenges into what it describes as ‘solvable’ (e.g. rethinking roles and skills), ‘difficult’ (alternative avenues of discovery) and ‘wicked’ (interoperability).

The Guardian brings news that Florida Polytechnic University's new 11,000 square-foot library contains not a single physical book.  Instead, students will have access to around 135,000 e-books.  “We have access to print books through the state university system's interlibrary loan program.  However, we strongly encourage our students to read and work with information digitally,” said director of libraries, Kathryn Miller.

And latest research from Pew Internet shows that younger Americans do not necessarily regard libraries and books with the disdain we might sometimes expect.  Despite their embrace of technology (98% of those under 30 use the internet), 62% of agree there is “a lot of useful, important information that is not available on the internet,” compared with 53% of older Americans.  And 88% of Americans under 30 read a book in the past year, compared with 79% of those age 30 and older.


Apps Driving Mobile Growth


A ComScore report shows that time spent on mobile devices increased by 24% from Jun 13–Jun 14.  However, the bulk of theis growth was fuelled more by app usage (+52%) than mobile Web (+17%).  In the US, only three news-related apps – Yahoo Stocks, Yahoo Weather and The Weather Channel – made the top 25 mobile apps, with the remainder being social platforms (Facebook, Snapchat, Pinterest, etc), utilities (Google Maps, Google search), entertainment (YouTube, Pandora, Netflix) and commerce-related (Amazon).  Seven percent of smartphone users generate nearly half of all app downloads and 65.5% of users don’t download any new apps each month.


e-Book Prices Continue to Rise

[DBW; The Daily Finance; EdSurge]

Digital Book Wire reports that the average price of best selling e-books continues on the steady upward trajectory that began last Christmas (from about $5.50 to around $8 last month).  DBW believes this is largely due to the effects of Amazon’s Kindle First and Kindle Unlimited services.

But not to worry, a free daily e-mail service from BookBub highlights deeply discounted books and, unlike Amazon's Deals, offers bargains for users across all major reader platforms, including the iPad, Kindle, Sony and Nook.  It also allows users to select books across 17 different genres (rather than Amazon’s four).  BookBub already has a million subscribers.

Jose Ferriera bemoans the low production values and weak instructional design evident in some OER e-books.  But David Wiley reminds us of a recent article in Educause Review describing Mercy College’s change from a commercial maths textbook and online practice system (~$180 per student), to an OER e-book and open source online practice system.  Over 18 months, the maths pass rate increased from 48.4% to 68.9% and the savings to students amounted to $125,000 the first year.


Tentative Transitions of US Graduates into Work

[The Chronicle]

Government statistics from many countries show that those workers with degrees tend to reap the benefits with higher salaries over the longer term.  However, a recent study followed approximately 1,000 US students for two years after graduation to document their successes and failures – revealing a more sobering picture.  Two years after graduation, 23% were either unemployed or underemployed (working fewer than 20 hours per week or in jobs where the majority of workers had not completed even a year of college), and less than half had full-time jobs that paid $30,000 or more per year.  Three quarters reported receiving continued financial assistance from parents and 24% were still living at home.


Technology Update

[Campus Technology; TechCrunch]

Apple launch events usually deliver on just a small proportion of all the prior rumours, but 9 Sep was a gem.  We got iOS 8, iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, Apple Pay and 18 different varieties of Apple (not “i”) Watch.  The watches will not be available until 2015 (except this biodegradable model) but the UK phones come out on 19 Sep, starting at £539 for a 16GB, 4.7” iPhone 6, up to £789 for the 128GB, 5.5” iPhone 6 Plus.

A new forecast from IDC predicts that global sales of phablets (smartphones with screens between 5½”–7”) will hit 175 million in 2014, slightly ahead of sales of portable PCs.  Further growth is expected in 2015, when predicted phablet sales of 318 million will comfortably exceed those of tablets (estimated at 233 million).

Toshiba has launched its new Encore Mini tablet.  For just $119, users will get Windows 8.1 running on an Intel Atom quad-core CPU with a 7” (1024x600) display, 16GB of storage, a microSD card slot, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, accelerometers, front- and rear-facing cameras and a 7hr battery life.  The spec is not to-die-for, but the price is.

All the evidence and predictions over the past 12 months or so suggested that PC sales were on the wane as we all started to become more mobile.  However, more recent figures suggest that may not be the case.  Peter Yared believes the reason is that tablets have not evolved at a sufficient rate to make people desperate to replace their old models.  He suggests that, with the consumer market becoming more saturated, the greatest potential growth is in the business sector – and those users are waiting for the emergence of ‘super tablets’ (e.g. 13” screen, keyboard, 256GB storage) before they’ll get their corporate chequebooks out.

Do you ever just stop and marvel at technology?  Samsung’s new Gear S Smartwatch has a 2” curved AMOLED screen, 3G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, an accelerometer, gyroscope, compass, UV detection, barometer, heart rate monitor, a dual-core 1.0 GHz processor, 4GB of storage and a 2-day battery life.  In a watch.


Gartner Hype Cycle 2014

[Pew Research]

The Gartner hype cycle is 20 years old this year.  The latest version places around 50 current and emerging technologies on the cycle, along with Gartner’s estimate of when they are likely to reach the plateau of productivity.  And a Special Report provides strategists and planners with an assessment of the maturity, business benefit and future direction of more than 2,000 technologies, grouped into 119 areas.


Education at a Glance 2014

[EdSurge; eLearning!]

Whereas the Chronicle’s Almanac of Higher Education 2014 is hidden behind their paywall, OECD’s Education at a Glance 2014 allows you to amble through all 570 pages and wallow in 100,000 figures, 300 tables and 150 charts relating to school and adult education policies, participants, activities and outcomes across 44 OECD and partner countries (or you could trot through a 55-slide summary).  It’s almost impossible to summarise here, but things are getting better: almost 40% of 25-34 year-olds now have some form of tertiary education, over 80% of those are in employment, and they’re earning more than those who are less well qualified.

But that’s now.  What will e-learning look like in five years’ time?  Adobe’s Roy Chowdhury speculates that there will no longer be a distinction between e-learning and learning, although the ‘e’ will enable much better (and routine) measuring and tracking of the effectiveness of learning.  M-learning will grow as better, cheaper devices with bigger screens will enable students to undertake learning activities and consume content that goes way beyond checking timetables, results and forum posts – and that learning will be seamless as users move between devices and locations.



[Stephen Downes]

LiveBinders offer a cloud-based solution for collaborating, organizing, and sharing all of your online content and learning: “With our online binders you can combine all of your cloud documents, website links and upload your desktop documents - to then easily access, share, and update your binders from anywhere […] LiveBinders is the only cloud document that lets you view other online media and uploaded documents in context.”  The Edublogger site gives detailed guidance on how to get going.


Video Applications to US College

[The Chronicle]

Starting this Autumn, applicants to a liberal-arts college in Towson, Maryland, are being invited to submit a self-produced video instead of test scores, high-school transcripts, and recommendations.  Goucher College’s Video App makes it the first college to allow those who submit videos to largely forgo the traditional admissions requirements.  “Students are more than just numbers,” says admissions counsellor Christopher Wild.  “We’ve always taken that approach, and this is another step in solidifying it further.”




And Finally…

[The Telegraph; TechCrunch; Science Alert]

The University of Brighton has been criticised for spending £400 of public money to fund a My Little Pony Conference.  The one-day conference included talks and discussions on topics such as 'gender representation and mythology issues' of the six-inch tall figurines and their 'links to poetry and photography'.  Fourteen people attended, from as far away as Finland, and the event made a £16 profit.

Disney has manipulated the mass of models including a teapot, egg, armadillo, elephant and ballet dancers to 3D-print some unlikely but highly stable spinning tops.

Blink and you’ll miss it.  Cubestormer 3 – a robot built by two British engineers from Lego and powered by a smartphone – solves a Rubik’s Cube in a shade over 3 secs.

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