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e-Learning Digest No 141 - May 16

Cloud created by:

Jim Ellis
16 May 2016

UK Conferences & Workshops

Online Learning MOOCs

Self-paced Online Learning MOOCs



[THE; BBC; Ian Blackham; Peter Horrocks; Wonkhe; Ian Blackham; The Guardian]

The HE White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy, was published this morning.  Its aims include encouraging a wider range of new HEIs by speeding up the process allowing them to award their own degrees.  As expected English universities will be able to increase tuition fees above £9,000 from autumn 2017, if they have high-quality teaching.  There will be a new watchdog, the Office for Students and there will also be encouragement for universities to admit students from a wider range of social backgrounds.  >Wonkhe has live updates and commentary.

HEPI’s Nick Hillman is concerned that the Home Office is now “a back door regulator of higher education” as news emerges that Theresa May has concerns about HEFCE plans to contract out work currently undertaken by the QAA in separate tenders that would mean the break-up of the UK-wide quality system.  She is thought to fear that this could lead to weakening of the oversight of institutions’ fitness to act as sponsors for overseas students, a process currently undertaken by the QAA.

NUS members have spotted that high TEF scores are likely to lead to higher tuition fees.  But some of those TEF scores rely on student feedback, so they’ve voted to boycott both the National Student Survey (NSS) and the Destination of Leavers from higher education survey (DLHE) unless the government withdraws its planned reforms.

HESA’s Finances of Higher Education Providers 2014/15 gives a breakdown of £31bn expenditure of UK HE sector by country and department.  The largest category, not surprisingly, was academic departments at £11.8bn (38.0%), followed by admin/central services (£5.2bn, 16.5%) and research grants (£4.5bn, 14.4%).  And the most expensive faculties were medicine, dentistry and health (£2.7bn, 8.7%).  The largest source of income is tuition fees and education contracts (£15.6bn, 46.9%).

According to HEPI, the £3bn-a-year apprenticeship levy on larger firms should be extended to cover employer-sponsored degrees, otherwise universities risk losing students as companies respond to the levy by cutting degree spending.  Last month’s report claims that sponsored degrees offer “excellent value for money to taxpayers, who pay much less of the cost [than for traditional degrees], and students, who can emerge with no debt”.  It also notes criticisms of some apprenticeship provision, including from Ofsted’s Sir Michael Wilshaw, who said that “employers and providers involved in poor quality, low-level apprenticeships are wasting public funds”.

HEPI has also released data to show that UK women are now 35% more likely than men to go to university – approaching a reversal of the 1990 position when 34,000 women graduated from UK universities compared with 43,000 men.  However, the report quashes the long held belief that the shift was triggered by the switch from O-levels to GCSEs in the late 1980s.  There are stark differences within the current male group, with only about 10% of white boys from disadvantaged families going to university, whereas deprived boys from other ethnic backgrounds, such as black and Asian, are much more likely to enrol.

Universities, faces an “uncomfortable future” unless they embrace online degrees and draw up plans for raising billions of pounds to go private because it is “only a matter of time” before virtual learning transforms higher education, according to Prof Laurence Brockliss, author of Oxford university’s new official history.

The Sutton Trust’s Degrees of Debt report shows that English university graduates face higher debts on graduation than their counterparts in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  For example, a typical four-year US graduate faces debts ranging from about £20,500 (public/private non-profit universities) to £29,000 (private for-profit) whereas their English counterparts owe an average of over £44,000, and the Trust predicts that this will top £50,000 when maintenance grants are abolished.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has found a number of compelling reasons for recognising the importance of EU membership to British science.  Not only could restrictive EU regulations that prohibit innovative research but the committee estimates that nearly a fifth (18.3%) of all the UK’s incoming EU funding goes on scientific research and development.  And a “shock poll” of 1,000 NUS members by the pro-Brexit Daily Express found that 76% of students backed staying in the EU.



[University World News; MindShift; Ryerson Social Media Lab; Stephen Downes; Audrey Watters; EdSurge]

A study by researchers from the University of Washington based on surveys of 1,400 MOOC users and 2,250 non-users aged 18–35 in Colombia, the Philippines and South Africa, found that learner demographics, MOOC use and dropout rates are very different to those in the developed world.  Some the key findings of the research include:

  • Around 80% of MOOC users come from low- and middle-income populations and have only basic or intermediate level ICT skills; less than half had completed college

  • Main motivations were gaining specific job skills (61%), preparing for additional education (39%) and obtaining professional certification (37%)

  • Among non-users, lack of time (50%) was by far the largest barrier, although lack of computer access (4%) or skills (2%) were NOT found to be barriers

  • 49% of MOOC users received certification and a further 30% completed their course

  • Women are more likely than men to complete a MOOC or obtain certification.

MindShift wonders if lack of support is a factor in dropout rates, particularly for less experienced or motivated learners, in which case Learning Circles might offer a solution. A pilot between librarians at Chicago Public Library and Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU) saw groups of learners brought together in person to take an online course together over six to eight weeks, with the help of a librarian facilitator.  The librarian was not a subject matter expert but had facilitation skills to help the learners help themselves and to guide them through the various resources and tools the library had to offer.  Some 65% of learners had never taken an online course before, but retention rates of around 45–55% were achieved.

North American researchers examined how multiple social media platforms are being used for formal and informal learning based on data from two connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs).  Their aim was to develop and evaluate methods for analytics to detect and study collaborative learning processes by trying to link multiple online identities and their contributions across several platforms.  However, they found that the majority of users posted via just two platforms, with Twitter the most popular (mainly for discussions), followed by blogging (more for notes and reflection) and 74% used the same username on both.

A separate study compared MOOC student use of Facebook groups with use of the MOOCs’ native course message boards and forums.  Researchers found greater levels of engagement on, and preference for, the Facebook groups, and they speculated that students can create fake personas on course message boards and forums whereas they tend to sign up with their real names on Facebook.  “Real names give other students the idea that they are talking to a real person and that, perhaps, helps build a sense of community and they trust that type of environment more”.  Facebook also offers several ways to contact the professor; they can reply to a post, like a post, and even send a private message.

Udacity has launched Udacity Connect – a brand-new programme where, for $99 per month, Nanodegree and Nanodegree Plus students can visit physical locations weekly in their neighbourhood to work with peers and get face-to-face guidance with goal setting and hitting key milestones.  The first sessions started last week in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.  Start dates for Stornoway have yet to be announced.

Sebastian Thrun has announced his move from the role of Udacity’s CEO to that of chairman and president.  He spoke to EdSurge, revealing that the Udacity demographic is about 6 years older than college students: “They’re life-long learners.  Their quest is different.  They tend to be very busy people; many are employed.  They want a focused skill.  We take people from one career to the next.”

MOOQ is the European Alliance for Quality of Massive Open Online Courses, whose mission is to develop a quality reference framework for the adoption, the design, the delivery and the evaluation of MOOCs.  MOOQ aims to lead to new Q-generation of MOOCs that will be designed, organised and tested as qMOOCs through close collaboration with all interested partners and stakeholders in Europe and beyond.

Coursera now has over 1000 MOOCs active and open for enrolment, up from just 260 a year ago.


Commercial News

[EdSurge; Audrey Watters; Phil Hill; Stephen Downes]

London-based SAM Labs develops electronic >science kits for STEM activities which are controlled by students using a mobile app via Bluetooth.  The company has just attracted £3.2m to help it grow internationally.

Spires, an Uber-style online tutoring company that hopes to sign up 10,000 university students as tutors by the end of the year to help prepare pupils for HE, claims it can help applicants from poorer backgrounds get in to top institutions.  The firm has so far signed up 120 Oxford and Cambridge students as tutors and has 400 learners on its books, around half of whom are preparing for Oxbridge entry.  Learners pay £24 an hour, of which £21 goes to the tutor.

Pearson is exploring a disposal of GlobalEnglish Corp, which uses cloud software to teach English to employees of multinational companies including GE and Unilever.  Pearson bought GlobalEnglish in 2012 for $90m.

Swedish company DigiExam has raised $3.5m to expand its digital solution to help replace pen-and-paper tests.  Teachers and lecturers can create, assign, grade, share and reuse digital tests.  The tool currently works on Windows, OSX, iPads and Chromebooks, and exams can also be delivered offline.  The software used by more than 1,000 schools in 45 countries.

Teachable, which provides >a platform for teachers to create and sell online courses, has just raised $2.5 million in funding.  The company offers a freemium service to authors, with all levels getting features such as quizzing and discussion forums, but with integration with third-party sites and advanced customization costing more.  Teachable claims that revenues have increased tenfold in one year, with over 1 million students signed up and over 700,000 teaching videos uploaded.  On average, teachers make over $5,000 per course.  

A majority of >Apollo Education Group shareholders have now approved the proposed acquisition by a consortium of investors, including Apollo Global Management (no relation).

A short but interesting analysis by Canada’s Contact Nord on how Amazon, Google and Apple are changing the HE landscape.  Conclusion: ignore them at your peril, but perhaps “university planners and public policy makers could start actively explore potential public-private partnerships with these companies to make quality learning more accessible, more affordable and more likely to lead to success.”


EU to Fund Hundreds of Scholarships for Syrians

[University World News]

HOPES – Higher and Further Education Opportunities and Perspectives for Syrians – sees British, French, German and Dutch organisations supporting a new programme funded by the EU to facilitate access to education for Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.  The scheme will provide 400 scholarships and English classes for refugee students as well as educational counselling for a further 42,000.


We Process Information Differently When Presented Electronically and on Paper

[Audrey Watters]

We hear anecdotally how students feel about print versus on-screen content, but what does the science tell us?  Researchers investigated cognitive construal through experiments with randomised groups who studied using either a tablet/laptop or printed materials.  They found the >digital students exhibited a lower level of construal, prioritising immediate, concrete details over abstract, decontextualised interpretations.  This pattern emerged both in their greater preference for concrete versus abstract descriptions of behaviours as well as superior performance on detail-focused items (and inferior performance on inference-focused items) on a reading comprehension assessment.  Further studies found that the likelihood of correctly solving a problem-solving task requiring higher-level "gist" processing was: (1) higher for participants who processed information for the task in print and (2) heightened for digital participants who had first completed an activity activating an abstract mind set, compared to (equivalent) performance levels exhibited by participants who had either completed no prior activity or completed an activity activating a concrete mind set.


Want to remember something?  Draw it


Work over the past 50 years by Paivio (1971), Craik & Lockhart (1972), Mayer (2005) and many others have examined how our brains handle visual and verbal information differently.  Canadian researchers conducted seven free-recall experiments to compare the effects of creating drawings of to-be-remembered information relative to writing, from which they concluded that, “…results showed unequivocally that drawing pictures of words presented during an incidental study phase provides a measurable boost to later memory performance relative to simply writing out the words, once or repeatedly.  Across all seven experiments, memory for drawn words was superior to all other instructional manipulations”.  However, they acknowledge that “…the content was still only single words and hardly representative of an academic setting.”


Growth of the Instructional Design Field


The Chronicle of Higher Education ranked Instructional Design as one of the top 10 trends in HE this year, and a new Gates-funded report, Instructional Design in Higher Education, surveyed 853 people in the instructional design field (586 US-based), finding that:

  • The average age of IDs is 45

  • 67% are female

  • 87% have master’s degrees

  • 32% have doctorates

  • 57% have teaching experience

  • 53% have technology development experience

The report estimates there are 13,000 ID professionals in US HEIs and they typically divide their time between design, management (of projects), training others and support (e.g. VLE queries).  Greatest impediment to success?  Lack of faculty buy-in.


US Students Today Are More Motivated By Money and Less By Learning

[BPS; EdSurge]

The American Freshman Project has asked first-year students – around 8 million of them between 1971 and 2014 – about their reasons for going to university.  Responses typically included “To be able to get a better job”; “To be able to make more money”; and “To learn more about things that interest me”.  Now psychologists have analysed the responses according to three generational groups: Boomers (born 1944–1960), Gen X (1961–79) and Millennials (1980–94).  Their findings provide support for anecdotal observations that today's students have a more “consumer mentality” than prior generations, as Millennials were more likely than Boomers to say that they were attending university to make more money and less motivated by learning about things that interest them.

Regardless of motivations, a degree is still regarded as important, according to Gallup’s fifth annual survey of 1,616 US adults.  The survey found that 70% say it is “very important” to have a degree or professional certificate beyond high school, with a further 25% saying it’s “somewhat important”.  And 70% also think having postsecondary education will be “more important” to get a good job in the future.


US Students Mount Legal Challenge Over Quality of Online Degree

[Inside Higher Ed]

Four graduates of George Washington University’s online master’s degree program in security and safety leadership have filed a class-action lawsuit saying the programme doesn’t live up to its promise of being designed for an online setting and not a physical classroom.  They claim that the 16-month, 12-course programme consisted of course readings without the context provided by an instructor or recorded lectures.  “The misrepresentations are designed to present the program as something that it is not: a credible, longstanding program, with courses and content specifically designed for the online learning environment,” the complaint reads. “In reality … the ‘content’ mostly consisted of scanned-in PDFs of textbooks (with blurry pages and sentences cut off) and PowerPoint slides taken from the in-class courses, without any narration or explication”.


University Website Design Guidelines

[Nielsen Norman Group]

NNg believe >effective university websites can increase conversions, strengthen institutional credibility and brand, improve user satisfaction, and save time and money.  They tested 57 university websites with 33 users – prospective students, both undergraduate and graduate, as well as parents of prospective students – aged 16 to 68 in the United States, Canada, UK, and Taiwan.  They concluded that, “most of these sites rank far below the usability levels expected on today's Internet.”




Peergrade is a Danish company that offers software to enable students to grade each other’s work.  Teachers are able to set an assignment and grading criteria, and invite students to upload their completed work, which is then distributed to different students who are charged with actually carrying out the grading and giving feedback.  According to CEO David Kofoed Wind, “Continuous budget limitations for educational institutions force teachers to teach larger classes and consequently cut back on the number of written assignments or grade more homework,” he says. “Letting students partake in the process of evaluating and giving feedback enables them to learn from the work of others, reflect upon the evaluation criteria in the course and [gain] skills in giving constructive feedback”.  The platform claims to use advanced statistical models to estimate what would be a fair grade and help to eliminate peer bias, and natural language processing for inferring the quality of text feedback between students.


 (US) Virtual Schools Report 2016: Directory and Performance Review


If you’re interested in the state of online education in the US then this fourth edition of the NEPI’s annual report on online and blended learning schools provides a raft of detail on student demographics, state-specific school performance ratings, and a comparison of virtual school outcomes with state norms.  The key (and intriguing) takeaway is: “Increasing numbers opting for online and blended learning schools despite evidence of poor performance.”


How Tech Sector Principles Can Revolutionize Education Workplaces


Barnett Berry considers what education can learn from approaches taken by tech industries, assuming staff can find the time to stop doing what they’ve always done.  He considers three of Google’s nine principles of innovation: Innovation should come from everywhere (e.g. Facebook’s ‘like’ button was born in a hackathon); 20% time (for staff to “act on their innovative spirit”); and fail well (“to get more breakthroughs, the best approach is to focus on increasing the variety of ideas that are generated”). 


Open Educational Resources: Policy, Costs and Transformation

[Terry Anderson]

In 2012, a declaration from The Commonwealth of Learning (COL) and UNESCO urged governments around the world to release, as OER, all teaching, learning and research materials developed with public funds.  This e-book examines the implementation of the Paris Declaration through the thematic lenses of policy, costs and transformation, drawing on 15 case studies contributed by 29 OER researchers and policy-makers from 15 countries across six continents.  The case studies provide a detailed picture of OER policies, approaches and initiatives in different country contexts, showing the impact of OERs on the costs of producing, distributing and providing access to learning materials.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the authors conclude that progress is being made but more needs to be done.


Moodle 3.0 Available for Android and iOS

[Richard Chang]

Moodle has released its Ver 3.0 of its app for Android and iOS.  This new version allows users to browse wiki pages; it includes improvements to the chat function, messaging and video playing and also fixes a problem displaying images in the book resource.  Portuguese and Romanian versions are also now included.  The organisation plans to move to a two-month release cycle for Moodle Mobile after Moodle 3.1 is released.


Microsoft Joins the Club with ‘Classroom’ App and Office 365 Education Updates


Following the of Google Classroom and, more recently, Apple’s Classroom App, Microsoft is launching its own “Classroom”, available for free to all Office 365 Education users.  The service operates much like a lightweight learning management system, providing an online homepage where teachers can create student groups, distribute assignments and files, and share events and reminders via Outlook.  Students can also use OneNote Class Notebook to take and share notes, complete assignments and organise class materials.



  • Parsey McParseface is a component of Google’s new SyntaxNet, the world’s most accurate – and now open source – parser.  [Google]

  • Dropbox’s Project Infinite aims to give users local access to their cloud files without having to store them on a local drive.  [TechCrunch]

  • Although not yet officially announced, Apple appears to be discontinuing support for QuickTime on Windows.  [BBC]

  • CERN has released 300TB of Large Hadron Collider data as open access, together with some Linux analysis tools.  [TechCrunch]

  • Google's Cultural Institute now includes a 9 min, 360˚ tour of Sydney Opera House, including a performance from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.  [Engadget]

  • The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) are exploring plans to combine.  [W3C]

  • Google’s new Gboard app is an iOS keyboard that lets you search without a browser.  [TechCrunch]

  • Amazon’s new Video Direct service will compete with YouTube.  Contributors can earn royalties and subscribers can watch ad-free for a fee.  [BBC]

  • Apple Music’s new student membership option offers a 50% discount on the normal monthly subscription rate.  [TechCrunch]

  • Harvard researchers have used hygroscopic ink to print 4D objects that can move independently when submerged in water.  [Edtech Magazine]

  • Despite Elsevier’s efforts to shutdown access to SciHub’s 51m academic papers, they remain available via several backup domains.  [TorrentFreak]

  • Microsoft’s Word Flow app is a next-word-predicting on screen keyboard just released for iOS.  [TechCrunch]

  • Periscope has launched a new feature which allows users to keep their streamed video for more than 24 hours.  [BBC]

  • Concerns over a Google company being given access to the healthcare data of up to 1.6m patients of the Royal Free NHS trust.  [Ian Blackham]

  • Interesting project from Sony to represent >Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in different musical styles.  [TechCrunch]


And Finally…

[Rafa Hidalgo; TechCrunch; BBC]

Congratulations to Leicester City (I’d wear my scarf but Keith Vaz still has it).  It may be that their success is down to their style of play which, as the graph in this article shows, is markedly different to all other Premiership clubs.  Jeremy Wilson reports on why football clubs are placing such importance on analytics and why technical analysts are becoming increasingly valued.

West Ham United has become the first UK football team to sign an e-player – 24-year-old pro gamer Sean Allen (aka Dragonn) was runner up in last year’s FIFA interactive World Cup final and has qualified for every ranking FIFA e-sports event this year.  He will wear the club’s shirt (number 50) while representing them at professional tournaments.

And just to prove that football is a game of three halves, here’s news that >Tottenham Hotspur and Highgate School (fees £18,705 per year) are proposing a state sixth form in north London.  Spurs will be the main financial sponsor and provide premises for the free school, planned for September 2017, while Highgate School will provide staff and educational expertise.  Rumours that Harry Redknapp will be Head of English remain unconfirmed.


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