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e-Learning Digest No 128 - Apr 15

Cloud created by:

Jim Ellis
13 April 2015

UK Conferences & Workshops



[Gill Smith; Grainne Conole; Campus Technology; edX; Stephen Downes; Audrey Watters]

The US Dept of Justice has announced a settlement with edX over the accessibility of its services.  The MOOC provider will modify its website, platform, and mobile applications to allow students who are blind, deaf, or otherwise disabled to participate, bringing it in line with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Research by Toven-Lindsey et al explores the range of pedagogical tools used in 24 MOOCs, finding that the range of pedagogical practices currently used tends toward an objectivist-individual approach, with some efforts to incorporate more constructivist and group-oriented approaches.  The paper challenges educators to strive for more creative and empowering forms of open online learning.

MIT and Harvard University have just published a 37-page draft report that summarises findings from two years of hosting 68 MOOCs for 1.7 million participants who logged 10 million "participant hours" of activity.  Key findings include:

  • Participation in a second presentation was around 43% lower than the first but there was no significant decrease in a third presentation

  • 57% of registrants intended to earn a certificate (and a further 8% of the remainder ultimately did)

  • Computer Science courses had average participation numbers almost four times higher than other subjects (68,000 vs 19,000) but lower certification rates

A recent Educase paper identified that a large proportion of edX learners were themselves teachers.  Now a blog post by the same authors discusses whether opportunities are being missed to engage teachers with MOOCs.  Some 28% of edX survey respondents identified themselves as past or present teachers, 54% were interested in accreditation opportunities and more than 70% desired greater access to MITx materials for use in their own courses.  Now the authors suggest this presents some opportunities for MOOC providers, such as offering professional development for teachers, providing tools that allow teachers to tailor MOOC content into “personal online courses”, and providing profiling facilities so experienced teachers could identify themselves and be paired with novices to promote greater dialogue and learning.

A recent paper by Joksimovic et al, What do cMOOC participants talk about in Social Media? A Topic Analysis of Discourse in a cMOOC, examines how social media platforms (blogs, Twitter, and Facebook) affect the learning processes shape learners' interests and the topics to which they devote a significant attention.  The findings indicate that learners tend to focus on several prominent topics that emerge very quickly in the course and they tend to maintain that focus, regardless of readings suggested by the instructor, and the affordances of different social media mean that different tools are used to discuss different topics.

And a paper in this month’s BJET, What public media reveals about MOOCs: A systematic analysis of news reports, finds that coverage of MOOCs in public media is rapidly decreasing.  By mid- 2014, it had decreased by almost 50% from the highest activity during 2013 and, while the majority of discussions during 2012-13 were focused on MOOC providers, partnerships and investments, the more recent focus has shifted towards the position of MOOCs in the global educational landscape and the use of data and analytics.



[THE; Gill Marshall; BBC; University World News]

A new HEFCE report, Financial health of the higher education sector, shows there to be “significant variations in the financial performance of individual institutions across the sector”, with two institutions seeing their income fall by more than 10% in in 2013-14, while four saw growth of more than 15% (Fig 1).  Staff costs rose by an average of 3.4%, but with variations from -11% to +14% (Fig 4).  In a bid to attract students, institutions are borrowing to invest, with a sector total of £6.7bn (26% of total income), but with one institution peaking at 93% (Fig 11).  The report warns that, “Without increased surpluses and continued government support, there is a risk that the sector will be unable to deliver the scale of investment required to meet student demands, build capacity and … remain internationally competitive.”

However, Jeremy Clayton, director of knowledge and innovation strategy at the Dept for Business, Innovation and Skills, warns that universities are viewed by “politicians from across the political spectrum” as overstaffed and largely untouched by public spending reductions, despite having achieved efficiency savings worth £1 billion over the past three years.

The University of Central Lancashire has put aside £2.8 million to guard against further losses on its overseas campuses as its Cyprus branch lost more money and drew criticism from the UN Secretary-General.  The campus recorded a loss of £1.4 million in 2013-14, blamed on “disappointing” recruitment which UCLan says has now improved.  Plans for a Sri Lanka campus have been shelved and a deal for another planned campus in Thailand had previously collapsed before building started.

The Association of Colleges says that 190,000 adult education places will go next year and adult education in England “will not exist by 2020” if government cuts continue.  Funding is being cut by 24% and courses for health, public services and care, and ICT could be hardest hit as the government prioritises apprenticeships and subjects such as English and maths.

Concerns about plagiarism in a 2013 University of Buckingham law module should have triggered a formal process says the QAA.  Instead, academics reduced students' marks for “poor academic performance” because they interpreted the problem as poor referencing rather than plagiarism.  The university subsequently referred to some sections in essays as having been “lifted” but decided the first year students had not yet been subject to rigorous training on avoiding plagiarism and so had not committed any deliberate action to deceive.

The UK’s first Research Centre for Global Higher Education is being established by the UCL Institute of Education in partnership with Lancaster University and the University of Sheffield. Co-funded by HEFCE, the centre will open in October 2015.


Commercial News

[Business Insider; Pete Mitton; Audrey Watters; EdSurge; Forbes]

Apollo Education Group (University of Phoenix) announced its Q2 earnings last month and news that total enrolments were down 15% and revenues were down 14% caused the company's share price to fall by 16%.  Student numbers have fallen by more than 50% compared to five years ago, from 460,000 down to 213,000.

LinkedIn is buying online training provider for around $1.5bn in what will be the professional network's largest acquisition to date. offers a large library of online courses in such areas as Web design and development, computer programming, animation, video production and editing, education and business.  A basic subscription currently costs $25 a month ($250/year) with a premium subscription at $37.50 a month ($375/year).

Jones International University, an online, for-profit institution based in Colorado, has announced plans to shut down following a 55% drop in enrolment between 2011 and the end of 2014, leaving JIU with about 2,000 students. 

Be warned, Amazon is moving into online tutoring.  As part of Amazon's new Home Services, US customers can purchase tuition in subjects ranging from maths and languages to music and fitness – 121 at home or in small groups in local centres.  The service is offered in partnership with San Diego-based TakeLessons, a marketplace for local and online lessons.

Starbucks has announced a commitment of up to $250m to ensure that each of its US employees can go through four years of a bachelor’s degree – through Arizona State University’s generally well-regarded online programme – and graduate without any tuition debt.  Currently, around 2,000 Starbucks partners are already enrolled and this new initiative should help at least 25,000 more graduate by 2025.

By the end of June, News Corporation will have invested more than $1bn in its Amplify division that makes tablets, sells an online curriculum and offers testing services.  Amplify’s annual revenue represents only about 1% of News Corp’s sales of $8.6bn and the division has yet to make a profit.  Bloomberg believes News Corporation’s $1bn plan to overhaul education is “riddled with failures” and this article goes through them, from preferences for print, through bandwidth limitations to losses, breakages and thefts.  Classic quote from one seventh grader, describing the Amplify tablets: “I think they're evil”.

A new report from Ambient Insight, Q1 2015 International Learning Technology Investment Patterns, shows that investments made to learning technology companies across the globe reached $1.12bn in Q1 2015.


Technology For Employability

[Rebecca Galley]

The Jisc cross-sector Technology for employability study is currently about half-way to completion and three key themes are emerging:

  • Institutions are on various points of the continuum towards student employability “maturity”

  • Technology is under exploited

  • There is insufficient engagement and partnership working with employers

The authors welcome feedback on these themes, either as blog comments or replying directly to or


Think Visual

[Catherine Chambers]

Catherine Chambers has written about Visual Storytelling in the British Universities Film and Video Council’s (BUFVC) ‘Viewfinder’ journal.  The article and exemplar video clips cover short-form visual content developed for the OU’s open platforms (YouTube, iTunes U and OpenLearn) such as the internationally successful 60 second… videos and the award nominated Unlikely Leaders series.


30 Trends in Education Technology For 2015

[Belinda Tynan]

Terry Heick posts 30 ed tech trends for the coming year, organised into three groups:

  • Trending Up (e.g. Teacherpreneurs, Decentralising academic standards, Digital citizenship)

  • Awkward Middle Ground (e.g. Google, Microsoft, Apple, “Accountability”, Traditional reading lists of truly great literature)

  • Trending Down (e.g. Mass education publishers, Common core standards, “21st Century learning”, MOOCs)


Teaching in a Digital Age

[Tony Bates]

Tony Bates seems to have done more work and made more online postings since he retired than ever before.  He’s been releasing chunks of his new online book,Teaching in a Digital Age, for comment as they’ve been drafted over the past year or so.  Now the whole thing (502pp) is complete and available for free.  Tony’s foreword says that “The book examines the underlying principles that guide effective teaching in an age when everyone, and in particular the students we are teaching, are using technology.”  The twelve chapters cover issues such as the nature of knowledge, F2F and online methods of teaching, technology and different media, and quality.  Stephen Downes’ assessment: “This is a monumental accomplishment and I have no doubt that Bates will receive wide praise for his efforts over the last year.”


College Lets Students Switch Between Online and In-Person

[The Chronicle]

An increasing number of institutions allow students to study courses on campus or online, but Philadelphia’s Peirce College will shortly allow access to both formats in the same course.  The college, which caters specifically to adult learners, plans to allow its students to switch back and forth between attending class in person or online, based on which is more convenient for them on a given week.  As part of the college’s 2015-2018 strategic plan, some programmes will allow switching from autumn of this year, with the entire curriculum following by September 2016. 


State of the Commons

[Stephen Downes]

CC reports on the state of Creative Commons, noting that there are currently around 880 million CC-licensed works (although Stephen Downes points out that 111 million of these are separate Wikipedia articles) and that total is expected to pass 1 billion in 2015.  Other highlights:

  • The majority of CC work is published in the US (37%) and Europe (34%)

  • 14 countries (including the UK and Scotland) (?) have made national commitments to open education

  • The Hewlett Foundation leads the way in open policy for philanthropy

  • The US Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training initiative (TAACCCT) is the largest CC project, with a $2bn budget to help community colleges equip their students with the skills they need to find employment

But according to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Chief Content Officer, writing in Wired, “If we do not get educational content right, students are less likely to gain the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college and careers.”  So, a clear message – it’s very important that we pay money to educational publishers in order to learn well from ‘quality’ content.  But, as Stephen Downes observes, “…in fact, almost any content will do if learners are motivated, and no content will do if learners are not motivated.  And the reason why free can work and is working is that it's created by and for people who are motivated.”


Jisc Learning Analytics

[Niall Sclater]

Niall Scalter’s been busy.  In a succession of posts, he explains Jisc’s open learning analytics architecture, he’s been gathering requirements for a student app for learning analytics and compiling a taxonomy of ethical, legal and logistical issues of learning analytics.


Learning for Life


According to a new report, Learning for Life: The Opportunity for Technology to Transform Adult Education, there are 36 million US adults who lack basic skills (1 in 6 maintains low literacy skills and nearly 1 in 3 has low numeracy skills) and yet the adult education system serves only about 11% of them.  There is enthusiasm for using technology and participants have good access to modern devices and the internet, so the report (Part 1 of 2) calls for greater exploitation of ICT.


Thug Notes

[EdSurge; Stephen Downes]

Thug Notes is web site aimed at US students which includes video explanations of Shakespeare and other notable works of literature.  However, the approach taken by Sparky Sweets PhD is a little unconventional…

“After making a b**** outta their enemies, the king’s fresh generals Macbeth and Banquo hit up three witches who start laying down some cold prophecy.”

Not surprisingly, it’s a hit with many students and also some teachers, and the YouTube channel currently has over 400,000 subscribers.  According to the site’s cofounder, Jacob Salamon, “Thug Notes originally started off as an idea and a joke…  We never really expected to enter this whole world of education; that wasn’t the initial intention.  But we began to see that this is working in classrooms.  Teachers are using it; students are using it.  Millennials are falling in love with reading again.”

But if you tend towards the more academic end of the literary spectrum, a feature on The Week site provides descriptions and video exemplars of what the English of Shakespeare, Beowulf, and King Arthur actually sounded like.


Apple Watch Interface Design

[User Focus]

Good user interface design is a challenge in itself, but trying to squeeze lots onto a 38mm (1.5”) screen makes it even more so.  Therefore, the Human Interface Guidelines for the Apple Watch make interesting reading because they explain not just what developers should aim for, but also why.


Happy Birthday iPad

[Techno Buffalo]

OK, so when was the first iPad launched?  My two late-teen daughters guessed at 1999 and 2002, making them about a decade out – because iPad 1 appeared on 3 April 2010. 

And that’s why predicting the future and impact of technology on society is so fraught with uncertainties.




And Finally…

[The Chronicle]

April fool pranks work well with young kids but can often become more cheesy as we move up the age range.  This example from assistant professor of mathematics and computer science, Matthew Weathers, deserves a mention simply for the choreography and technical skills involved, plus the positive reception from his audience at Biola University, California.

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