The web-site is now in readonly mode. Login and registration are disabled. (28 June 2019)

e-Learning Digest No 129 - May 15

Cloud created by:

Jim Ellis
15 May 2015

UK Conferences & Workshops



[THE; BBC; EdSurge; Audrey Watters; Stephen Downes; The Chronicle]

THE asked 27 FutureLearn universities about the cost per course of their FL MOOCs.  Based on information on 20 courses from nine institutions the average cost, including staffing, was £29,356 – broadly in keeping with the “around £30,000” predicted by Martin Bean two years ago.  However, while Loughborough says that it has produced two courses for about £10,000 each, Dundee has allocated £130,000 to a programme that has so far produced one course.  Edinburgh said that its three FL MOOCs cost £150,000 – similar to its costs for the Coursera platform.  The OU was one of seven institutions that declined to provide details.

FutureLearn says it has 370,000 students enrolled for a British Council MOOC preparing for an English language test.  The six-week course, Understanding IELTS: Techniques for English Language Tests, has students from 153 countries, with the biggest number from the Middle East, Asia and Latin America.  It prepares students for the IELTS exam, taken 2.2 million times last year, which is used by employers and professional bodies to measure English language skills.  The course is free, but students can pay £29 for a “statement of participation”, showing that they have followed the course.

You can’t beat thinking big.  edX made its MOOC code open source in 2013 and so far over 70 organisations have taken up Open edX across the K-12, HE, professional development and corporate training sectors.  This EdSurge piece gives some brief examples, along with news that edX hopes the initiative will reach one billion learners within 10 years.  The Open edX feature roadmap includes delivering content in smaller chunks, more effective use of mobile apps, and promoting greater student contribution and engagement.

edX has partnered with Arizona State University to offer the Global Freshman Academy which allows first year students to take a series of MOOCs, pay only when they pass each one, and earn credits equivalent to one year of general education.  Sounds good?  Not according to Stephen Downes (and many, many others): “Remember, courses are typically 3- or 6-credits. So you could end up paying $600 or $1200 for a course. That's not 'open' the way I define 'open'.”

Richard Patterson investigated the effects of study distractions on 657 Stanford MOOC students.  He tested three software tools including (1) a commitment device that allowed students to set time limits on distracting Internet activities, (2) a reminder tool triggered by time spent on distracting websites, and (3) a focusing tool that allowed students to block distracting sites when they go to the course website.  Relative to a control group, he found students using the commitment device (1) spent 24% more time working on the course, receive course grades that were 0.29 SD higher, and were 40% more likely to complete the course.  However, tools (2) and (3) yielded no significant difference to online student performance.

The University of Illinois has launched a low-cost online “iMBA” in partnership with Coursera.  Anyone would be able to view the course materials at no charge, but those who wanted the degree would have to go through the university’s admissions process and pay about $1,000 per course.  Enrolees would get greater support from faculty members, access to online discussions with other enrolled students, and could complete the entire degree for about $20,000 – far less than the $50k for the on-campus version or the $100k for the university’s executive MBA.

“Lecture videos are a central feature in the student learning experience in nearly all MOOCs,” advises the MITx Office of Digital Learning, but Lorena Barba included only one video in her Numerical Methods MOOC.  Admittedly this was partly due to financial constraints, but also because she is not convinced there is strong enough evidence to support its effectiveness as a teaching medium, despite its popularity (well, for at least the first 6 mins) with students.  She cites Derek Muller’s investigation into the effectiveness (or not) of physics videos, which suggests many students do not pay full attention because they believe they already understand the topic, hence they don’t absorb the very explanation that would have reversed any misconceptions that have.

And, in the finest spirit of openness, the University of Nottingham has trademarked “NOOC” (Nottingham Open Online Course).



[University World News; The Independent; THE; BBC]

UWN considers the implications of the election result, with the prospect of withdrawal from the EU potentially impacting on research funding (est at £1.2bn per year) and international student numbers.  For example, the Erasmus programme – involving more than 4,000 HEIs in 33 countries – has funded the mobility of nearly 3m students and 300,000 academics in the past 25 years.  The EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme will also provide nearly €80bn of funding for research during the period 2014-20.  THE’s John Morgan also gives his version of likely events, as the sector stands by for battles over cuts, fees and Europe.

In the new Cameron government, Nicky Morgan remains as Education Secretary (to the regret of many teachers due to her lack of teaching experience) while Sajid Javid has been appointed business secretary, which includes responsibility for universities and their funding, with Jo Johnson (brother of Boris) as the new universities and science minister.  Tristram Hunt remains as Shadow Education Secretary.

One of the first jobs for the new government is to decide whether to support the OECD’s Ahelo (Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes) project, which aims to measure learning outcomes at a global level in a move to measure and report university teaching quality worldwide.  Former universities minister David Willetts believes it is, “absolutely the correct agenda and it’s really important for students that they know how universities are doing on the teaching side.  And indeed it’s also reflected in the Conservative manifesto.”

Two thirds of UCU members at London Metropolitan University have voted to strike in protest over 165 job cuts.


Commercial News

[EdSurge; Stephen Downes; Audrey Watters; University World News; The Chronicle; TechCrunch]

Blackboard has bought Banbury-based Remote-Learner UK, a provider of open source solutions to the education industry, primarily in the UK and Ireland.  This marks Blackboard’s ninth acquisition in a year and further adds to its expansion into the Moodle community which began with the acquisition of Moodlerooms and NetSpot in 2012.  Since that time, Blackboard has contributed code, bug fixes, QA and platform integrations to Moodle.

McGraw-Hill Education and Microsoft are teaming up to allow educators to develop compound learning objects (defined as “a pedagogically-linked group of reusable digital content and assessment items related to a single learning objective”) customised to their teaching and learning needs.  Objects can be built through MS Office Mix, a free interactive PowerPoint add-on, powered by analytics and content provided by McGraw-Hill.

There is speculation in the financial media that McGraw-Hill Education will become a public company later this year.  The company, which is privately owned by Apollo Global Management (different to the Apollo that owns the University of Phoenix), has a potential value of about $5bn.

Laureate Education – the largest for-profit college network in the world with 84 universities, mostly in emerging markets – is rumoured to be planning for a $1bn initial public offering in the US, which could value the education giant at about $5bn.

US-based Corinthian Colleges Inc has closed 28 campuses belonging to four of its subsidiary colleges.  The company had been under intense scrutiny by the US Dept of Education, which imposed a $29.6m fine last month for alleged misrepresentation of job-placement rates.  The closure affects 16,000 current students.

Turkey is now home to more than 2 million Syrian refugees, of whom more than 40,000 would have been attending college in their homeland.  Now the head of the Bahcesehir Education Group, a network of private HEIs, has pledged $10m of his own money to set up an accredited university system with coursework in Arabic, English and Turkish on campuses along the Turkish border.

US telecoms giant Verizon is buying AOL for $4.4bn.


Preparing For The Digital University

[Stephen Downes]

Preparing for the digital university: a review of the history and current state of distance, blended, and online learning is a grand study (234pp) of the distance/digital HE landscape.  Led by George Siemens and backed by the Gates Foundation, its six chapters look at the history of distance learning, blended learning, online learning, and assessment, followed by a look forward at future research in MOOCs and technology infrastructure.  It represents a detailed literature review but Stephen Downes considers it “a really bad study” because he considers its scope to be too narrow, too theoretical and it ignores contributions from many significant experts and contributors in the field.  Not surprisingly, George disagrees.


Media Usage by Traditional vs Non-Traditional Students


The latest issue of IRRODL (Vol 16, No 2) contains a number of articles relevant to OU teaching and learning, but a paper comparing media usage by traditional vs non-traditional students was particularly apposite, given that the (German) authors define NTS as (i) enrolling into HE through unconventional means, (ii) not fulfilling typical HE entrance requirements, and (iii) studying part-time and distance learning.  The authors found:

  • High penetration of digital/online devices, especially mobile for both student types

  • Much greater acceptance of a wider range of media, tools and services by NTS (Tables 2 & 4)

  • NTS have a greater need for flexible study due to their work and family responsibilities and so have higher expectations of the range of digital/virtual teaching-learning methods used

  • The university’s internal media offerings (e.g. VLE) are used more intensively than external media, tools, and services


Certifying Skills and Knowledge

[Belinda Tynan]

In Certifying Skills and Knowledge: Four Scenarios on the Future of Credentials, Jason Swanson speculates on what credentials/assessment might look like in ten years by considering four scenarios: “All Roads Lead to Rome” (a baseline future), “The Dam Breaks” (an alternative future), “Every Experience a Credential” (a second alternative future) and “My Mind Mapped” (a wild card scenario) – each of which he considers from a K-12, post-secondary and employment perspective.


Preparing Students for Employability


The Economist Intelligence Unit asked employers about the most critical skills for employees in their organisation to possess today.  The top six came out as problem solving (a clear leader by 18 percentage points), team working, and communication (a trifecta commonly known as “21st century skills”), followed by critical thinking, creativity and literacy.


Towards Maturity Reports


UK skills development organisation Towards Maturity released two reports last month.  Building Workforce Competency (2015) examines the behaviour of the top learning organisations from the Towards Maturity Benchmark Study, identifying a number of practical ideas to help L&D professionals understand how to reduce the time to competency for their workforce.  And L&D: Evolving Roles, Enhancing Skills, produced in conjunction with the CIPD, looks at the extent to which the L&D profession is evolving and the skills gaps that need to be addressed if L&D are to respond more effectively to change.


The Future (And Status) of Online Education

[Campus Technology; The Chronicle; EdSurge]

The University of California’s all-digital “campus” was going to revolutionise HE by providing courses online for students shut out of the system’s brick-and-mortar classrooms at a time of high demand but falling budgets.  But three years later, the Online Instruction Pilot Project has become a $7 million example of the ineffectiveness of using MOOCs and other forms of online learning to widen access to college degrees.  Costs would be partially offset by allowing non-UC students to enrol (for $1k–$2k per course) but, in the two years from Spring 2012-14, only 250 non-UC students finished a class.  “We spent a lot of money and got extremely little in return,” said Prof Jose Wudka, who previously chaired UC’s Committee on Educational Policy of the Academic Senate.

But over at Stanford, everything’s looking rosy.  In a presentation entitled Technology in Teaching and Learning, President John Hennessy said he expects technology to facilitate virtual team meetings to enable delivery of smaller group and project-based classes online; he foresees a day when online grading will be good enough to assess short-answer questions and, eventually, complex problems; and he predicts that online analytics will deliver real-time learning measurement with the reuse of materials leading to more engaging and compelling online learning.  He believes MOOCs may be useful in certain circumstances but will not replace structured education: “We've learned that MOOCs are not the answer, at least not the only answer.”

Arizona State University sees other benefits of high-quality online college degree programs, particularly for older students who don’t want the full on-campus experience (or costs).  ASU’s online program currently has more than 13,000 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled, according to a university spokeswoman, and the most recent retention rates are 87% for undergraduate students and 92% for graduate students – although the University believes that up to three-quarters of current undergraduate courses could be delivered online, saving costs and reducing their carbon footprint.

So if all this technology’s so good, why do 75% of Japanese classrooms still use chalkboards?

Pearson’s Bradley Emerling, visited seventeen K-12 classrooms, all of which were equipped with a large chalkboard, with few computers, projectors, smartboards or tablets in evidence.  He writes, “It turns out Japanese educators possess a unique technical vocabulary for describing chalkboard teaching practices, called bansho (board-writing) and bansho-keikaku (board-writing planning).  Like many instructional practices in Japan, bansho has been studied and refined over a period of years through use of Japanese lesson study (jugyō kenkyū).”  He wonders, given the plethora of expensive devices and applications we use in the west, why educators don’t treat these, “as critical topics for collaborative inquiry, develop plans for using them in the classroom, articulate hypotheses for how they will create specific learning opportunities, implement, observe and collect data on the results”.


The Next Generation Digital Learning Environment

[Tony Bates]

EDUCAUSE’s The Next Generation Digital Learning Environment: A Report on Research explores the gaps between current learning management tools (LMS, VLE, etc) and a digital learning environment that could meet the changing needs of higher education, and is the result of “consultations with more than 70 community thought leaders”.  The suggestions is that the NGDLE might be some sort of Lego-style ecosystem that addresses five functional domains: interoperability and integration; personalization; analytics, advising, and learning assessment; collaboration; and accessibility and universal design.


Education for All Global Monitoring Report

[Audrey Watters]

In 2000, at the World Education Forum in Senegal, 164 governments agreed on the Dakar Framework for Action which aimed to reach six wide-ranging education goals by 2015.  UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report is an extensive (460pp) review of how they’ve done.  “On the positive side, the number of children and adolescents who were out of school has fallen by almost half since 2000.  An estimated 34 million more children will have attended school as a result of faster progress since Dakar [but] There are still 58 million children out of school globally and around 100 million children who do not complete primary education.”  The key reason?  “Many governments have increased spending, but few have prioritized education in national budgets, and most fall short of allocating the recommended 20% needed to bridge funding gaps.”


Jisc Digital Student

[Belinda Tynan]

Following a call in Nov 14, Jisc has now identified almost 50 exemplars of effective practice in support of students’ digital experiences.  These have been written up with the support of the staff (and in some cases students) involved and are organised in terms of seven challenges for institutions.  There are two OU examples in the “Prepare and support students to study successfully with digital technologies” category.


The Virtues of Online Moderation

[Stephen Downes]

When Stephen Downes describes Prof James Grimmelmann’s article on online moderation as “careful, deep, sophisticated” and “a must-read”, you just have to take a look.  On a Friday in 2005, the LA Times launched an experimental “wikitorial” on the Iraq War that anyone could edit.  By the Sunday, the experiment had failed, as vandals overran it with profanities and graphic pornography.  So why did this fail while Wikipedia is into its thirteenth year?  The answer is ‘moderation’ and Grimmelmann provides four techniques (exclusion, pricing, organizing, and norm-setting), four case studies (including the LA Times and wikipedia) and four overall conclusions: moderation is complex, diverse, necessary and messy.


Hardware Update

[Campus Technology; TechCrunch]

Global tablet shipments have seen a year over year drop for the second straight quarter, down by 5.9% according to analysis from IDC.  Apple remains dominant with a 26.8% market share and 12.6m shipments for the quarter.  This is the fifth consecutive quarter the company has seen a decline in tablet sales, possibly due to the success of iPhone 6.  IDC, “expects Apple to record negative growth until the iPad portfolio is significantly refreshed, either with the expected increase in screen sizes or by introducing a dedicated version of iOS for its tablet lineup.”

Gartner reports that global PC shipments continued to decline in the first quarter of 2015, totalling 71 million units (a 5.2% year-on-year drop).  Lenovo led the market with about 13.6 million shipments (18.9%), followed by HP (17.3%) and Dell (12.6%).

The China smartphone bubble may be bursting.  IDC reports that smartphone shipments in China in the last quarter decreased for the first time in nine years (to just 99 million), down 4% year-on-year and 8% on the previous quarter.  However, Apple led the field, with 14.7% of the total shipments, ahead of Xiaomi (13.7%), Huawei (11.4%) and Samsung (9.7%).

But if your budget can’t quite run to a shiny big-brand device, how about the CHIP?  This is a $9 single-board Linux computer with a 1GHz processor, 512 RAM, 4GB of storage, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.  It also comes with a VGA adapter for an extra $10 or HDMI for $15.


Turnitin Scoring Engine

[Stephen Downes]

Turnitin’s new Scoring Engine claims to provide automated scoring of short answer texts and written essays by analysing, “the lexical, syntactic, and stylistic features of writing, such as word choice and genre conventions”.  How effective it is remains to be seen, but this sort of technology, once perfected, will have a big impact on how higher education and distance learning is run and resourced.


Student Take More Intellectual Risks on Blog Assignments

[The Chronicle]

PhD student Drew Foster analysed over 2,000 private reflective journal entries and reflective blog posts, finding that both practices produce distinct forms of reflection and lead students to take different risks in their writing.  Journals, which do not incorporate peer readership, appear to compel students to take more personal risks and engage in emotional labour to process assigned materials.  Whereas on blogs, which do incorporate peer readership, students engage in more intellectual risks, crafting complex arguments on what are often – especially in sociology courses – controversial issues,


Making more Effective Lecture Notes


It is widely acknowledged that taking notes can help understanding and recall, but can we make that process even more efficient?  Bui and McDaniel (2015) asked 144 undergrads to take notes while they listened to a 12-minute technical lecture.  One group used note paper containing a lecture outline, with headings and subheadings of the material. The second group were provided with illustrative diagrams showing the key components of a system, with labels explaining how the different parts interact.  A control group were simply given a blank piece of note paper.  Students who received a lecture outline performed better at free recall than the control participants and took more comprehensive notes but, when asked specific questions, the lecture outlines only appeared to help high-ability students.  In contrast, both high and low-ability students who received annotated diagrams performed better at free recall and at answering specific questions than the controls.  Further analysis showed that the students given an annotated diagram not only took fewer notes than the others, but those notes contained a higher proportion of references to cause-and-effect dynamics, suggesting the diagram helped students to focus on extracting the most important information for understanding the lecture topic.


Microsoft Office 2016 Preview


Microsoft Office 2016 is now available for public preview.  Some interesting early details…

  • Files will be saved to OneDrive cloud storage service by default

  • Real-time co-authoring of Word documents is coming

  • Outlook attachments will automatically live in the cloud, making email messages smaller and quicker

  • Data analysis in Excel will be faster and easier

  • Administrators will be able to offer greater flexibility for users and better control of data privacy


Free Mobile Voice, Text and Data Plans Coming to UK


US company FreedomPop is to extend its free mobile data, voice and text offering to the UK from July, after its equivalent US service attracted more than half a million users.  FreedomPop will offer Sim cards that offer 200MB of data, 200 texts and 200 minutes of voice calls per month using the cellular network at no cost.  The firm, which is backed by Skype founder Niklas Zennstom, says it will make money by selling extra services.  These include the ability to roll over unused data to the next month, anonymous browsing to protect online privacy, and the ability to add a second phone number from more than 60 countries so that friends and family outside the UK can call at local rates.




And Finally…

[Open Culture; Google; TechCrunch]

Google continues to expand its panoramic offerings.  In addition to the virtual art gallery and Street View explorations of the Galapagos Islands and the Mount Everest region (all reported in earlier digests), you can now take look around (and below the surface of) Loch Ness.  There’s also an interactive tour of the Abbey Road Studios that lets you explore the recording studio, watch interviews and mini documentaries, and view iconic photos. 

But if all that realism is a bit much, Swedish coder Einar Öberg has created Brick Street View which allows you to tour around any part of the world as if it was constructed in Lego, complete with toy cars and trees.

Extra content

Embedded Content


Contribute to the discussion

Please log in to post a comment. Register here if you haven't signed up yet.