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e-Learning Digest No 125 - Jan 15

Cloud created by:

Jim Ellis
15 January 2015

UK Conferences & Workshops



[EdSurge; Audrey Watters; TechCrunch; Campus Technology]

EdSurge reports on MOOC stats for 2014, highlights of which are that, by mid-2015, over 400 universities are expected to have delivered 2400+ courses to around 17 million students.  Coursera still offers the lion’s share of courses (36%) but this has fallen from around 50% in 2013 as new providers emerge – including FutureLearn, in 5th place with 4.7% of courses and around 800,000 students.  And what courses do people want?  The top 20 search terms suggests: python, healthcare, java, finance, android, English, statistics, marketing, music, writing, psychology, accounting, design, Spanish, programming, law, photography, big data and history.  The article also reports on four notable trends:

  • Each of the Big 3 MOOC providers have introduced their own credentials (Udacity’s Nanodegrees, Coursera’s Specializations and edX’s Xseries)
  • Open edX has quickly become the de facto platform for organisations and groups who are looking to host their own MOOCs
  • There is a move towards self-paced ‘always on’ availability rather than fixed start/finish dates (but with the challenge of providing the social interaction and/or assistance that many MOOC-takers expect)
  • Production quality is improving, with many universities setting up centralised production studios to support academics creating MOOCs

Coursera has revamped its Developing Innovative Ideas: The First Step in Entrepreneurship ‘Specializations’ MOOC.  Learners completing three 4-week courses will then be able to take part in a final project, creating a business plan and pitch deck to woo investors.  Those deemed to have a compelling product idea will be invited to interview for a 500 Startups (a Silicon Valley investment fund and business accelerator) cohort.

A new partnership between Amazon Web Services and edX sees the former offering students $1,000 in credit for completing one of two MITx courses on entrepreneurship.  The credit can be spent on processor time and/or storage in Amazon’s cloud.  Recipients can also get credit for instructor-led training and web classes on using AWS, free premium support and “office hours” with Amazon specialists to help newbies set up their app or service for Amazon’s instances.

Coursera is moving into China, thanks to a new partnership with Hujiang which will see English language Coursera MOOCs hosted on the Hujiang education platform, giving Chinese users access to course materials, class activities and discussions in a familiar learning environment.  Additional services will be available to help users' pronunciation, grammar and translation.  Future plans include launching courses in Hujiang from popular Coursera instructors, as well as incorporating educational resources from Hujiang into the Coursera platform.

Berkeley is teaming with private partner Databricks to launch a new edX MOOC focused on big data analysis using the open source Apache Spark data processing engine.  The first five-week course, Introduction to Big Data with Apache Spark, will cover the application of data science techniques using parallel programming for big and small data, and will start on 23 Feb.



[BBC; Independent]

The UK's first private medical school has just opened at the University of Buckingham, with an initial intake of 67 students paying annual tuition fees of £36,000.  Contrary to expectations, 60% of applicants are from the UK, reflecting the fact that conventional medical courses are consistently over-subscribed.  The course will last four and a half years (with a total cost of more than £162,000) and will include a mix of clinical and biomedical science teaching, working with the Milton Keynes Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.  COO, Prof John Clapham says he has been “absolutely staggered” by the initial interest and that demand was even higher for next year's entry. 

A new report by High Fliers Research claims the UK graduate employment market is at its most buoyant for 10 years.  Key to success is undertaking work placements at the firm in question, with a third of jobs expected to be offered to graduates who have managed to do this.  Conversely, those with no work experience are unlikely to be successful applicants and have “little or no chance” of receiving a job offer through graduate programmes, half of the recruiters said.

A request from HEPI for universities to provide details of how they spend tuition fees was met with a deafening silence from the majority, including almost all the of the country’s most select universities.  However, HEPI Director Nick Hillman – an adviser to the former Universities Minister David Willetts – said he believed they would be unable to convince MPs in future to lift the £9,000-a-year cap on fees unless they were more open about their financing.


Commercial News

[Audrey Watters; BBC; NYT; EducationDIVE]

Barnes & Noble has bought out Pearson’s stake in Nook Media for $28m.  This news comes just a couple weeks after B&N announced a similar deal to buy out Microsoft's stake for $120m.

Simon & Schuster has launched a new website offering online courses from popular health, finance and self-help authors.  Their first batch of online courses will cost $25–85 and include workbooks and access to live question-and-answer sessions with authors.  Simon & Schuster’s sales fell 11% in Q3 last year and sales of digital content, which accounted for 28 percent of the company’s business, were flat.

Online learning company and video library,, has raised $186m in a new round of funding.  It is expected to use the funds to make more acquisitions and expand its 550 staff base.

Tesco has announced that two of its businesses - Tesco Broadband and online entertainment service Blinkbox - will be sold to TalkTalk.

An analysis of 500 top global firms showed that only 13% of their philanthropic and social investment budget was targeted at education.  At the top of global spending on education were: Santander, which allocates 79% of its corporate social responsibility budget to  education, giving about $197m (£129m) last year; IBM (72%/$144m/£95m) and Telefonica ($130m/£85m).  In the UK, GlaxoSmithKline, Rio Tinto and HSBC were the highest ranked.


The Future of Online Learning


In the first of an occasional series featuring two experts debating a hot topic for students, Anant Agarwal and Chip Paucek, chief executives of online learning providers edX and 2U respectively, share their predictions for business education in 2020.  On Fri 16 Jan, there will also be an opportunity to ask both experts their questions in a live Q&A between 2pm and 3pm.  Register now to the FT’s MBA blog, where the Q&A will be held, and send questions to


Online Instruction, E-Learning, and Student Satisfaction


A paper in last month’s IRRODL presents the results of a three-year study of 553 students’ level of satisfaction with online learning at one US university.  Responses were consistent throughout the eight academic terms, showing no significant differences in the level of satisfaction according to gender, age, or level of study.  Overall, students rated their online instruction as moderately satisfactory, with hybrid or partially online courses rated as somewhat more satisfactory than fully online courses.  “Convenience” was the most cited reason for satisfaction and “lack of interaction” (including lack of communication with the instructor and classmates) was the most cited reason for dissatisfaction.


Should YouTube Clips Replace Hour-Long Lessons?

[Emma Piquemal]

According to Prof Sanjay Sarma, MIT’s director of digital learning, educators should stop relying on one-hour lessons and opt instead for 10-minute video lessons to capture the “wandering minds” of their students.  “The way we teach today is based on lectures, which is still a factory-style system,” he said.  “[Young people] spend hours each week consuming 10- or 20-minute titbits about physics and history or whatever on YouTube or Khan Academy… It’s not ‘maybe this will be the future’ – it is the future.  We just need to recognise it.”  However, not everyone agrees.  Miles Berry, principal lecturer in computing education at the University of Roehampton, said that in-depth learning still had a place.  “Academic and professional success requires the ability to concentrate for extended periods of time and the mastery of complex ideas and arguments.  Good schools do all they can to help their pupils develop a love of learning, whether it’s online, from books or face-to-face.”


Emerging Technologies and the Workplace

[Cisco; Bentley University]

Cisco’s 2014 Connected World Technology Report is based on recent surveys of 1,388 Gen Y (millennial) professionals (aged 18-30) and 1,524 Gen X professionals (aged 31-50) from 15 countries.  Its 147 pages provide a detailed insight into attitudes to work, expectations of the workplace and preferences/use of technologies,.  Even the summary is extensive, so here’s a summary of that summary:

  • More than 40% of Gen X and Gen Y professionals consider themselves to be “Supertaskers” (able to do more than two things effectively at once)
  • 60% of Gen X professionals think that Gen Y employees are able to perform tasks faster than older employees using mobile devices and apps
  • Gen X professionals are considered easier to manage than their younger counterparts; the greatest challenge when managing Gen Y employees is their “I want it now” ambition
  • More than half of Gen X and Gen Y professionals consider themselves accessible for work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
  • Around half of professionals wish to work anywhere at any time.  Most are not prepared to sacrifice salary for this but they believe organisations that offer it have a competitive advantage
  • If forced to choose, the majority of Gen Xs and Gen Ys would pick their smartphone over their television and 1 in 5 would rather be robbed of their wallet than their smartphone

Similar research by Bentley University into millennial workplace preferences tells us that, as you read this in Jan 15, one in three US employees will be a millennial.  They are part of the always-on generation, with 77% preferring flexible working and 89% regularly checking work emails outside work; but they are not exclusively digital, with 51% preferring to communicate with others face-to-face at work.  Nor are they job hoppers we might imagine: 80% expect to work for four or fewer organisations during their career and 16% hope to stay in their current job for life.  But 35% admit to having a poor work ethic and 66% believe limiting social media usage at work would make workers more productive.


Confusion Aids Learning?

[Stephen Downes; Faculty Focus]

As learning designers, we often assume we should be making learning as clear and painless as possible for our busy students.  But Daniel Lemire suggests the opposite can be much more effective, and we should encourage learners to:

  • Seek the most difficult problems
  • Reflect on what you have supposedly learned
  • Avoid learning from a single source

He believes that, “When studying, many people do not want to mix topics ‘so as not to get confused’.  So if they need to learn to apply one particular idea, they study to the exclusion of everything else.”  The structure of most books and course materials (and lectures) supports this but students are often quite passive and are learning at a fairly surface level.  He suggests interleaved practice (intentionally mixing up topics) is more effective, even though it may feel harder and confusing (“If some learning activity feels easy, it means that it is too easy”).  This approach also better mirrors real life and the workplace because “Interleaved practice is exactly what a real project forces you to do.”

And here’s another counterintuitive one: John Orlando suggests that too much praise could be undermining student motivation and self-esteem.


Drawing Can Aid Learning


Two experiments reported in Contemporary Educational Psychology showed benefits gained by students who were asked to make drawings (using a template) whilst assimilating new textual information about the biology of influenza.  In experiment 1 (N=48), those who drew scored 61% on a multi-choice comprehension test, vs 44% for a control group.  In experiment 2 (N=164), the scores were 63% vs 52%.  Experiment 2 also included two other groups: one received pre-drawn images along with the text, yielding a mean post-test score of 53%; the other also received pre-drawn images and were asked to create their own (51%).  These latter two conditions thus showed no notable gains over plain text, but the benefits of drawing over just reading were significant in both experiments.  The researchers believe this “…encourages learners to engage in generative cognitive processing during learning such as organising the relevant information into a coherent structure, and integrating it with relevant prior knowledge from long-term memory.”  However, they acknowledge that the study material involved a causal chain of events and so it is not clear if drawing could also help people learn other kinds of content.


Measuring and Understanding Learner Emotions


The LACE project published its first paper in the Learning Analytics Review series last month.

Measuring and Understanding Learner Emotions: Evidence and Prospects, by Bart Rienties and Bethany Alden Rivers, is a literary review of over 100 papers on emotions in learning and the methods that can be applied to analysing data on emotions.  The report explores seven data gathering approaches to measure and understand emotions.


US Online HE Shows Little Growth but College Debts Show Big Growth

[Campus Technology]

Higher education researchers Eduventures predict that US online learning will grow in 2015 (but only modestly); more colleges and universities will test out competency-based assessment; and education technology will continue to expand as an industry, driven by investment capital.  Eduventures expects just 2% growth in online degree programmes, dampened in part by the “uncertainty and indecision” of adult learners, and the number of new colleges entering the online market is expected to grow “very little, if at all.”  The company also noted that low interest rates are causing institutions to borrow more against the expectation that revenue from tuition, endowments, etc, will cover these debts.  “Rating agencies, however, are not being fooled.  Between 2009 and 2013, the number of credit rating downgrades at colleges rated by Moody's Investment Services outpaced upgrades by nearly five to one.”


Gender Gap in STEM Online Class Discussions

[The Chronicle]

A study of 420,000 undergraduates and graduate students enrolled in STEM classes in the US and Canada found notable differences in male and female behaviour in online forums.  Whilst most students enrolled in classes that use online discussion tools do participate, women ask 23% more questions than do their male peers, but they answer 18% fewer.  When women do answer, they are more likely than men to answer anonymously (39% vs 28%).  At the ‘top’ STEM universities (Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard and MIT) the male:female gap was greater than the institutional average.  However, gender differences varied greatly by subject.  While male computer science students answer 37% more questions than women, the difference is only 7% in humanities subjects and, in business and social sciences, women actually answer more questions than men (11% and 5%).


Google Classroom

[Pete Mitton]

More than 30 million assignments have been lodged with Google Classroom since it launched six months ago and now there are native Classroom mobile apps for both Android and iOS.  Google is also launching two new features to help teachers stay organized as they head into the second half of the year: a teacher assignments page and the ability to archive classes.  The apps will also allow students to take photos on their device and easily attach them (plus images, PDFs and web pages) to their assignments


Facebook At Work


In a move to take on Microsoft’s Yammer, Facebook has just launched iOS and Android apps called Facebook At Work, along with a version of Facebook at Work accessible via its main website, which will let businesses create their own social networks amongst their employees that are built to look and act like Facebook itself.  Employers can create separate logins for employees to use with their Work accounts, or users can link these up with their other profiles to access everything in one place.  The service is initially being aimed at companies with 100 or more employees.


Funding for Excellence

[The Chronicle]

A new report from the European University Association, Funding for Excellence, looks at higher education excellence schemes (e.g. REF) and their impact on universities in Europe.  The report states that excellence schemes should seek to encourage the development of teams of young academics and researchers, and increase funding efficiency, but caution that they should “…avoid direct linkages with international rankings, particularly as the methodologies used by these rankings vary and the criteria they measure may differ from the ‘excellence’ that the scheme seeks to foster”.  However, one of the systems studied – Russia’s 5-100 scheme – does exactly that, aiming to place at least five Russian universities in the world’s top 100 by 2020.


Paris-Saclay University


The French government is investing £5.9bn to bring together 19 institutions on a single new 1,300-acre campus to the south of Paris.  The aim is for Paris-Saclay University to have the size and clout to get it well inside the top ten international rankings.  It will have 70,000 students and 10,000 researchers, and there will be an emphasis on graduate courses and recruiting more international students and staff; it is also hoped the new site will attract technology start-ups. 


PC on a Stick


Intel has produced a Windows 8.1 PC on a USB stick.  The Compute Stick contains a quad-core Atom processor, 32GB of storage, 2GB of RAM, wi-fi and Bluetooth support.  It will retail for $149, with an $89 Linux version available with half the RAM and a third of the storage.


e-Learning For Undergraduate Health Professional Education


A major new report from Imperial College and the WHO, e-Learning For Undergraduate Health Professional Education: a Systematic Review Informing a Radical Transformation Of Health Workforce Development, looks at a number of previous studies comparing online, offline and ‘traditional’ learning.  In terms of knowledge acquisition, 33% of the studies showed significantly higher gains among students using offline CBL compared to traditional learning (and 63% no significant difference); similarly, 29% showed significantly higher gains among students using web-based e-learning (64% NSD).  For skills acquisition, 62% of studies showed significantly higher gains among students using offline CBL (38% NSD) and 40% showed significantly higher gains among students using web-based e-learning (27% NSD).  And for student satisfaction, 56% of studies showed significantly higher gains among students using offline CBL (11% NSD) but only 14% showed significantly higher gains among students using web-based e-learning (69% NSD).


Skype Translator

[PC Mag]

Skype has launched the first phase of its translator preview programme, offering users the chance to have a ‘normal’ conversation, with Skype translating what you say into the other person's language (and vice versa) in “near real-time”.  Video/audio conversations are limited to just English and Spanish for now but, if you want to stick to text-only, it will translate more than 40 different languages.


Duolingo for Schools


Language learning provider Duolingo has launched Duolingo for Schools, a free product (with no ads) that allows schools to teach 23 languages in a structured learning environment.  This provides a centralised dashboard so teachers can track what language lessons students complete, and generate reports based on that information. Duolingo claims to have over 50m worldwide users and a 2012 study claimed that US adults learning Spanish from scratch would need between 26 and 49 hours (or 34 hours on average) of Duolingo to achieve the equivalent of the first college semester of a traditional taught course.


Teaching by Radio Overcomes Ebola Disruption

[Audrey Watters]

The Liberian education ministry has ramped up its teaching-by-radio effort to provide lessons for children across the country hit by the Ebola outbreak which has closed most schools.  The programmes follow the basic outlines of a curriculum, from first grade upwards, and try to take an engaging and fun approach, especially for younger children, often involving teaching through rhymes and songs.  However, the education ministry acknowledged that the broadcasts do not yet reach nationwide and that many children do not have access to a radio, or even the batteries to power one.  The country had been embarking on a complex overhaul to try and resolve its ~60% adult illiteracy rate, so the concern is that this will be yet another lost year for Liberian education.


Gates Foundation Grants

[Audrey Watters]

The Washington Post lists recipients of the 15 largest grants from the Gates Foundation last year, with the New Venture Fund (implementation of Common Core Standards) topping the bill at $10.3m.


Hardware News

[Campus Technology]

Research from Gartner shows that global smartphone shipments grew just more than 20% to 301 million units in Q3 of 2014, despite the overall mobile phone market remaining fairly static.  Smartphones accounted for 66% of mobile phone shipments for the period and this is predicted to rise to about 90% by 2018.  The US led the field in sales (18.9% increase) due mainly to the launch of the iPhone 6, whereas Western Europe saw a 5.2% decline.  Samsung led smartphone sales with 73.2 million shipments (24.4% market share), with Apple in second place at 38.2 million (12.7%).  Not surprisingly, Android dominates the smartphone OS market with 83%, followed by iOS at 12.7%.

Further data from Gartner suggests that tablet sales will continue to slow in 2015, with an estimated growth of around 8% to reach 233 million shipments for the year.  Research director Ranjit Atwal suggests the drop is partly due to the lifetime of tablets being extended as they are shared out amongst family members and remain ‘evergreen’ due to automatic software upgrades.  Gartner forecasts the total device market (tablets, desktops, laptops, notebooks and mobile phones) growing by 3.9% this year to reach approximately 2.5 billion shipments.


Open Education Reader

[Stephen Downes]

David Wiley’s Open Education Reader was compiled for a Brigham Young module in Autumn 2014 but is now available under a CC licence.  It contains a number of papers on the differences between free and open, open books and other resources, open education research (including an overview of the OU’s OER Research Hub) and the economics and business models for open.



[Campus Technology; BBC]

Vital Source’s Kent Freeman believes publishers are “…fundamentally changing themselves from publishing organizations to software development houses”, but Dian Schaffhauser considers whether the current breed of e-textbooks have really moved much beyond annotations, highlighting, glossaries and bookmarking.  She discovers that:

  • Pearson’s REVEL offers interactive exercises, infographics, social features, video segments and progress tracking
  • McGraw-Hill’s Smartbook gives a reading experience that “…continuously adapts by highlighting content based on what the student knows and doesn’t know. This ensures that the focus is on the content he or she needs to learn, while simultaneously promoting long-term retention of material”
  • Cengage’s MindTap is an online system that assembles learning resources such as readings, multimedia, interactive activities and assessments into a “learning path” that guides each student through the curriculum as well as providing analytics to indicate “engagement levels”
  • Flat World Knowledge is developing a competency based adaptive learning platform that can provide content from multiple sources, social interaction, gamification/simulation, analytics and a proctored exam service that streams real-time video of students to a company that monitors for cheating
  • Knewton is starting to develop an open adaptive learning platform that “…will allow anyone to create his/her own personalized, adaptive course for free”

A team from Harvard Medical School compared reading paper books and backlit e-readers before sleep.  They found that the latest e-readers which emit blue light (similar to smartphones, tablets and LED lighting) can slow or prevent the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, meaning users take longer to nod off and experience poorer quality sleep.  However, original Kindles do not emit blue light and do not cause such problems.


UCAL Launches Online EdD

[Campus Technology]

The University of California has launched an online Doctorate of Education (EdD) in Organizational Change and Leadership that is “…uniquely designed for current and emerging leaders who are looking to drive systemic change in their organizations”.  The course is targeted at “…full-time working professionals within K–12 and higher education systems, private firms and nonprofit and government organizations”, and has attracted an initial cohort of 60 students from the US and five other countries, most of who are education professionals.  A second programme begins in May.


Music to Help You Concentrate?


Many people (particularly in open plan offices) listen to music whilst working.  Will Henshall has been working with neuroscientists for several years to explore which music best aids concentration, concluding that ‘neutral’ instrumental music works well, whereas lyrics can be distracting.  His Focusatwill site offers users 10 categories of music mixes for a $5 per month subscription and he currently has 300,000 subscribers who typically engage with the site for seven hours a day.  Thync – a startup founded by experts from Stanford, Harvard and MIT – aims to go one better.  It has so far raised $13m in funding to develop a wearable that it claims can affect people’s moods.



  • Samsung launches the Z1 – its first Tizen-powered phone – in India for £60.  [TechCrunch]
  • AICC has disbanded due to declining membership.  But if you just love e-learning standards, here’s their document archive.  [Stephen Downes]
  • Stanford is launching AI100, a one hundred year study on artificial intelligence and its on-going impact on life.  [Campus Technology]
  • Jennifer Cirpici suggests 40 free graphic design resources every graphic designer should know about.  [TNW]
  • Eleanor Lutz’s Tabletop Whale site offers science-based infographics (many of them animated) “made with love”.  [Stephen Downes]
  • Time to ditch that mouse?  Senic’s wireless Flow puck offers four types of motion and haptic device control.  [TechCrunch]
  • UCLA researchers have developed a device that turns a smartphone into a high-magnification fluorescence microscope.  [Campus Technology]
  • …and Gradecam also uses your smartphone’s camera, this time to scan and score multiple choice assessment papers.  [EducatorsTechnology]
  • The OpenSocial Foundation is moving to W3C, by means of a new Social Web Working Group and Social Interest Group.  [Stephen Downes]
  • Microsoft’s new, free Office Sway provides a more user-friendly, browser-based, cross-platform alternative to PowerPoint.  [iDownload Blog]
  • David Cameron is discovering that data encryption is a tad more complicated than kissing babies.  [TechCrunch] 


And Finally…

If you haven’t come across Landfill Harmonic, check out these videos (3:30) or (11:45) showing how Paraguayan kids have formed an orchestra using instruments made from trash.  Cateura is a town essentially built on top of a landfill, with locals browsing the trash for sellable items. When orchestra director Luis Szaran and music teacher Favio Moran tried to set up a music program for the disadvantaged kids of Cateura, they soon ran out of instruments.  That’s when some enterprising parents started to make cellos from oil cans and pieces of wood, and saxophones from water pipes, spoons and buttons – and there’s now an entire Recycled Orchestra.  “Our main goal isn't to form good musicians, but to form good citizens.”


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