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e-Learning Digest No 132 - Aug 15

Cloud created by:

Jim Ellis
17 September 2015

UK Conferences & Workshops


e-Learning MOOCs



[Campus Technology; Audrey Watters; Stephen Downes; Campus Technology; Jisc]

Commentators have been promising/threatening that MOOCs will disrupt HE almost since they first emerged, but might nanodegrees actually make this happen?  Udacity has trademarked the nanodegree and it so far has six running, including the much heralded Android Developer course, created in close cooperation with Google, for which learners pay $200/month but with a 50% refund if they complete within 12 months.  Earlier this year, Coursera announced a similar initiative – microdegrees – in partnership with Google, Instagram and others.  That combination of affordable, certified, vocationally relevant content, developed with and supported by industry, could be the game changer.  According to the University of Wisconsin’s chancellor, Cathy Sandeen, “A growing number of industries are open to the idea of employing people with portfolio backgrounds – that is, people without four-year degrees who have done different things and can show you what they've done”.

Coursera has launched a Global Skills Initiative aimed at bringing top companies – including Cisco, Microsoft and UBS – and universities together to produce online courses in fields like data science, computer programming, and finance.  Companies will contribute funding for production costs in addition to applied projects, guest lectures, case studies, and other materials that incorporate industry expertise into the course content, with the ultimate aim of developing learners in job-relevant skills.

Zaid Ali Alsagoff has published a blueprint for NOOCs (Nano Open Online Courses) which he hopes to launch next month.  Each NOOC will be just a few hours in duration, which means “Instead of having to do the whole course, I can now focus on the juice (I want), get assessed, and be certified (or Badged) on it.”  Sound plausible, although Stephen Downes wonders whether it really constitutes a networked ‘course’ or is simply “another way to present content?”

Alec Couros and Katia Hildebrandt describe and discuss a framework for teaching open courses.  They identify seven elements of course design they have used in their own open courses before suggesting possible strategies for building a framework for open courses that might lead to more positive student involvement.  The first of these is the semi-structured course environment, described by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown thus: “The new culture of learning actually comprises two elements. The first is a massive information network that provides almost unlimited and resources to learn about anything.  The second is a bounded and structured environment that allows unlimited agency to build and experiment with things within those boundaries.”

As of last week, Coursera’s “Verified Certificates” will be renamed “Course Certificates”.

Simon Nelson talks to Jisc on progress with FutureLearn during its first two years, who’s using it, how they study, which courses do well, and whether anyone’s making any money.

Alongside 45 universities and 19 other organizations, FutureLearn has added Durham, Manchester, the University of Madrid, the University of New South Wales and Japan’s Keio University to its stable.



[The Guardian; Peter Horrocks; The Telegraph; BBC]

The Independent Commission on Fees said raising the cost of undergraduate tuition to £9,000 a year has led to “a significant and sustained fall in part-time students and mature students”.  The commission called for the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee to urgently investigate the reasons for the severe decline, concluding: “This is a failure which threatens both social mobility and economic performance.”  It also expressed concern about the effectiveness of university recruitment strategies, especially among disadvantaged groups.

The Telegraph considers whether a combination of high fees and the demise of maintenance grants mean that more UK students will turn to free online higher education?  James Connington considers University of the People as one potential source.  UoP has relationships with NYU, Yale, the UN, Microsoft and Hewlett Packard.  Courses are tuition free and the only costs are a $50 application fee plus $100 per exam taken.

Over half the prisons inspected by Ofsted in 2013‑14 were judged as requiring improvement, or were inadequate for learning and skills.  In those prisons, inspectors found “education and training had little impact on supporting prisoners’ progression to employment or training after release”.  The majority of prisoner degrees were paid for by grants from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills until 2010, since when the number of prisoners doing OU degrees has dropped from 1,722, to 1,079.

A new report from the National Audit Office warns that there has been a “rapid decline” in the finances of the FE sector in England, with almost half of FE colleges in deficit in 2013-14 and 29 being reported as having “poor financial health”.  However, a spokesman for DBIS claimed that there will be “up to an additional £25m this financial year to help support the creation of three million apprenticeships by 2020”.

Coventry-based RDI (part of Capella Education) has become Arden University, having been accredited by DBIS, making it the only specialist distance learning university to launch in the UK since the OU was established.  Around two-thirds of RDI’s current students are based overseas and 90% studying whilst in employment.  As well as developing its own programmes through Arden University, RDI will also continue to offer distance learning courses from its UK university partners, Anglia Ruskin, Bradford and Sunderland.


Commercial News

[Audrey Watters; Phil Hill; Tony Bates; EdSurge; The Chronicle; Stephen Downes]

Blackboard is exploring a sale that it hopes could value it at as much as $3.4bn. Phil Hill explores that figure and wonders who might be interested and have that sort of funding available (Pearson, Google, Microsoft or LinkedIn?), whereas Tony Bates looks at risks and opportunities and is left wondering if Blackboard really is worth $3bn?

Pearson is selling the FT Group to the Japanese company Nikkei for the equivalent of about £840m so it can be “100 percent focused on our global education strategy”, according to chief executive, John Fallon. The company has also announced its intention to sell its 50% stake in The Economist Group.

London-based busuu claims to be the world's largest “social network for language learning”, with more than 55 million language learners and new ones arriving at around 100,000 each day.  The company will benefit from a $6.7m minority investment from McGraw-Hill who, as a result, will gain exclusive rights to distribute busuu to business clients which include schools, language institutions and corporations.

The US Federal Trade Commission is investigating The University of Phoenix to determine whether it engaged in deceptive practices in respect of “marketing, recruiting, enrollment, financial aid, tuition and fees, academic programs, academic advising, student retention, billing and debt collection, complaints, accreditation, training, military recruitment, and other compliance matters” since January 2011.

Kaplan-owned Mount Washington College will close next April due to declining enrolment (1,511 undergraduate students in 2014-15).  News of the closure came the day before the Graham Holdings Company, which owns Kaplan, announced Q2 figures that showed revenue from its domestic HE businesses had declined 5% to roughly $478m compared with the same period in 2014 – mostly due to falling enrolments.

TechCrunch examines the success of Brazilian startup Descomplica and wonders if for-profit represents the future of education in Brazil?  Descomplica provides a test prep platform for Brazil’s standardized college entrance exam tests, with its students logging in on average once every three days and spending around 80 minutes per visit.  They pay about $3 a month (less than 1% of the cost of a typical test prep course offered in Brazil) and 78% of them out-perform the national average on the entrance exams.

Investors poured $2.51bn into ed-tech companies between Jan-Jun this year, eclipsing the record high of $2.42bn invested in all of 2014.


OU Analyse

[BBC; EdSurge]

OU Students are going to have their progress monitored from 2015-16 by a new program, OU Analyse, which will track students' paths through courses and engagement with online learning modules.  It uses a variety of data sets held by the OU and assesses the likelihood of a student submitting their next assignment by using information gathered from four different algorithms.  The OU has taken steps to ensure that students' privacy is not compromised by the scheme – putting in place an ethics policy, agreed in consultation with a student committee, to protect their data.

Meanwhile, EdSurge reports on three North American approaches to predicting student success.  The simplest is by measuring how much students are using curricular materials (e.g. Iowa State) whilst the second also adds other forms of engagement such as posting messages (e.g. British Columbia).  The third and most complex method is to predict student outcomes by actually evaluating their knowledge, as currently being trialled by Stanford on a computing programming course.


White House: Innovation in Higher Education

[George Siemens]

George Siemens was one of the great and the good invited to a closed-doors White House meeting last month to discuss quality and innovation in HE.  Whilst respecting confidentialities, he posts 12 observations representing his personal reactions to the conversation, including…

  • “Higher education generally has no clue about what’s brewing in the marketplace as a whole”

  • “No one knows … what the university will look like in the future”, but expect more (not less), different, and with greater corporate input

  • Concerns over for-profits.  Higher Education is “not an ROI equation. It’s a quality of life equation”

  • He was “stunned and disappointed at the lack of focus on data, analytics and evidence”


Starting a University Press – The Perks, Pitfalls and Benefits


Vivien Ward considers the perks, pitfalls and benefits of starting a university press as a way of easing the financial strain on students, and Libraries.  Available technologies mean it has never been easier for a single university or a consortium to create and distribute electronic books – although those same technologies can create a host of potential problems relating to different platforms and file formats.  She also describes a pilot involving five UK universities as part of a Digital Publishing Project, with the first two books due to be published very shortly.


Higher Education : Access Denied

[Stephen Downes]

I read all of Stephen Downes’ OLWeekly emails and have to be quite selective about what I include here for fear of being swamped.  But this item – referring to a blog post by Graham Brown-Martin – I include verbatim because (for me) it just seemed to say all the right things:

“This is a small thing, but illustrative: the correct expression is "struck a chord", not "struck a cord".  Why does that even matter?  The former shows that you understand what the words mean, while the latter shows that you are parroting by rote.  And this - not "a vested interest in maintaining an intellectual hegemony" - is what the three or four years of an undergraduate education is intended to produce.  These minor differences in expression and presentation (citing people by their first name, use of generalizations like, "no interest in transformation", out-of-place employment of clichés like "wax lyrical") are very obvious to a person with a formal education and invisible to a person without one.  The result is the difference between learning on one's own, and learning through immersion in a knowing community, the difference between remembering what words mean and being able to speak a language.  I have nothing but sympathy for Graham Brown-Martin, but it's hard, especially if it wasn't part of your early life, and you can't learn to speak a language by reading books.  This - and not just a bunch of stuff to remember - is what needs to be produced by online learning.”


Accessibility Update

[Jisc; The Chronicle; Engadget]

Jisc’s Lisa Featherstone offers useful advice, tips and links – based on a persona approach – to help make learning resources more accessible for learners with disabilities.

Jisc has also announced an Accessible by Design competition, aimed at improving accessibility and inclusion in post-16 education.  Competition submissions will be accepted from next month and anyone working or studying in UK higher education, further education and skills is welcome to apply.  Successful teams receive £5000, and will also participate in a design sprint to get their idea off the ground.

Meanwhile, across the pond, it’s the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) and The Chronicle’s George Williams offers advice and links on Accessibility for Web Writers and how to evaluate your web pages for accessibility.

Visually impaired users may be interested in the new Dot braille smartwatch.  The Bluetooth device has an 8 x 3 pin matrix ‘display’ and includes a watch, alarm, messaging system, navigation functions and an ebook reader.  Battery life is around 10hrs and the target price for its launch later this year is sub-$300.


Tablets in Education

[World Bank]

The World Bank’s Michael Trucano writes about the proliferation tablets into education, citing numerous examples, initiatives and targets, not all of which came to fruition.  Rather than a formal report, it’s a slightly rambling journey but it does contain some useful links, such as to the Commonwealth of Learning’s Large-Scale, Government-Supported Educational Tablet Initiatives (May 2015) and a JCAL paper, Tablet use in schools: A critical review of the evidence for learning outcomes, (of 23 studies, 16 reported positive outcomes, 5 no difference and 2 negative).


Britons 'Love Smartphones and Selfies'


New figures from Ofcom shows smartphones (33%) have edged ahead of laptops (30%) for the first time as the preferred devices for connecting online in the UK.  Smartphones were also found to be more popular than digital cameras for taking and storing photos in 2014, with 60% of adults and 89% of 16 to 24 year olds using their phone for photography, and Britons collectively taking 1.2bn selfies last year.  However, less than 5% of UK adults own a smartwatch.  Ofcom also reports that 90% of UK homes now have 4G access and only 2% still do not have access to even the most basic 2G mobile internet signal.

Meanwhile, a survey by the Australian Department of Communications has found that 43% of Australia's digital users illegally download movies, TV shows and music on a regular basis, although they claim they would do so less if content was cheaper and available at the same time as in other countries.  Similar research carried out at the same time in the UK found that a fifth of British digital used illegal downloads


Apple Dominance (gasp)

[Bloomberg; TechCrunch]

US retailers sold $375 million of watches in June 2015, 11% less than a year ago, according to data from NPD.  The market for watches that cost less than $1,000 is most at risk, with consumers in that price range indicating they’re the most likely to buy an Apple Watch.  “The Apple Watch is going to gain a significant amount of penetration,” said NPD’s Fred Levin, “The first couple of years will be difficult for watches in fashion categories.”  Apple has not revealed sales figures but analysts suggest the company may have sold at least 1.9 million watches, assuming an average selling price of $499.

However, Apple has released figures from its App Store operation, showing that over 1.5 million apps are now available to users.  In July alone, it had its largest number of transacting customers with over $1.7bn in billings.  To date, the company has paid out $33bn to App Store developers, with $8bn being paid in 2015 alone.  And since April, China has been the number one source of iOS downloads.


Windows 10

I upgraded fairly smoothly to Win 10 last week – apart from a total absence of audio, necessitating an online hunt for drivers – and I like what I see.  But I always like to feel that I’m controlling the software rather than the other way round, so I began searching for useful tricks and tips, such as:

Particular niggles I’ve solved are quickly getting to the desktop (Winkey+D) and opening a new Edge tab in the foreground (Shift+Ctrl+Click), but I’ve yet to find a way of Alt-Tabbing to the desktop or getting a full list of Recent Items.




And Finally…

[Stephen Downes]

We would probably all agree that rich use of language leads to better society and learning, but Stephen Downes writes – “We certainly need language of some sort in order to create models and representations.  But to my mind, that's not how we learn.  Consider this case from the BBC demonstrating a crow undertaking a complex eight-stage task.  Crows caw, but they don't have a language.  This is the sort of behaviour that any learning theory needs to explain.  It's not enough to theorize how humans learn.  We need to know how learning happens, no matter where it occurs.”

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