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Trying to find useful things to do with emerging technologies in open education

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COuRsE Data

One of the things that has never really been clear to me is what it is that universities think they sell and what students think they are “buying”. (OU modules have always(?) had a price tag associated with them, although large amounts of financial support has also traditionally been available). One partial view might focus on one of the more tangible exchanges that are evident when taking a university degree, specifically the modules taken as part of a qualification programme, and the way they are bundled, organised and presented to students. Curriculum innovation works at both the level of keeping these modules up to date, as well as introducing new modules (and potentially new degree programmes, either as new aggregations of, and pathways through, collection of modules).

If we think of universities as organisations in the business of selling, at least in part, structured collections of course modules*, then we might speculate around the processes that are used to come up with new collections that are desirable to fee-paying students (and consequently, employers).

(* I know, I know – we might also think of the cost centre services that go along with course delivery as part of the package, the assessment, the facilities, the pastoral care, the structured academic content; or the “payoff” in terms of improved employability, or higher lifetime earnings. But when I buy a bar of chocolate, I don’t see it as covering the factory automation, raw ingredients, logistics or supply chain costs, nor am I buying in to delight or gluttony. I’m buying a bar of chocolate. I’m also not saying that the courses are necessarily the thing students are buying, it’s just one particular lens we can use to see whether it makes storytelling sense to view the system in that way…)

In part, programmes of study leading to named qualifications in particular subject or topic areas are influenced by the QAA benchmark statements:

Subject benchmark statements set out expectations about standards of degrees in a range of subject areas.

Subject benchmark statements do not represent a national curriculum in a subject area. Rather, they allow for flexibility and innovation in programme design within an overall conceptual framework established by an academic subject community. They are intended to assist those involved in programme design, delivery and review and may also be of interest to prospective students and employers, seeking information about the nature and standards of awards in a subject area.

In terms of curriculum development, there is a chicken-and-egg element to the role QAA statements can play. As the Recognition scheme for subject benchmark statements suggests in its guidance relating to the creation of new benchmark statements:

The proposal will need to demonstrate that a new or revised statement would provide the
benefits of a wider understanding about the scope and nature of the subject and the academic
standards underpinning it. This could be desirable for one or more of the following reasons.
• The subject is growing and more degree programmes are being provided in it
• A degree in the subject may be required for entry into a profession, but there are no explicit
academic standards associated with the subject for this purpose. There may also be a lack of
understanding within the relevant profession of what level of attainment can be expected
of a graduate in the subject, or of its appropriateness for entry into the profession
• The prospective benefits of agreed and explicit standards in the relevant subject have been
highlighted by, for example, external examiners and validating boards, higher education
providers, subject groups, or stakeholder organisations.

(See also Statements in development for examples of statements currently under consideration.)

Unpicking the course module view a little further, modules are typically associated with notional academic credit points, which are awarded “when you have shown, through assessment, that you have successfully completed a module or a programme by meeting the specific set of learning outcomes for that module or programme” (Academic credit in higher education in England – an introduction; see also QAA – Academic Credit). Note that credit points do not reflect how well you passed the assessment, just that you achieved at least the minimum standard required. Credit points themselves relate to two considerations: “[t]he credit value indicates both the amount of learning expected (the number of credits) and its depth, complexity and intellectual demand (the credit level).” The “amount of learning” is captured by the “notional hours of
learning” spent on the subject within the module. The level is based on level descriptors that “are used to help work out the level of learning in individual modules.”

Credit level descriptors are guides that help identify the relative demand, complexity and depth of learning, and learner autonomy expected at each level, and also indicate the differences between the levels.
They are general descriptions of the learning involved at a particular level; they are not specific requirements of what must be covered in a particular module, unit or programme.

So to recap – modules are designed in order to deliver a set of learning outcomes (that include subject or topic specific learning outcomes as well as more general skills) that can be acquired in a notional amount of time and that are assessed at a particular academic level in exchange for a academic credit.

Qualifications are then awarded based on credit awarded in programmes of study, such as undergraduate or postgraduate degrees. Qualifications typically require the demonstration of some sort of progression through credit levels within a subject area, specify a range of qualification level learning outcomes that need to be delivered within the context of the programme as a whole, and may also require students to demonstrate aptitude across a range of assessment styles (or alternatively, offer a range of assessment styles so as not to disadvantage students who struggle with a particular style of assessment).

Whilst “traditional” universities typically offered named degree programmes in specific areas, the Open University originally offered an Open Degree (which is still available), in which students were free to choose whatever modules (then referred to as OU courses) they wanted, subject to certain requirements on the number of courses taken at each credit level (akin to each year of a traditional university degree; for more on credit points and credit equivalence. Whilst course choice was free, many students followed the same common pathways through courses to come out with degrees that were, essentially subject degrees. In recent years, the OU has moved increasingly towards the award of named degrees, where students are required to take particular modules. Indeed, it is increasingly difficult to find the individual modules that students originally “bought” on the OU website – the emphasis now is on selling qualification level credit bundles, rather than module level credit points.

But how do universities decide what modules to offer? And how does curriculum innovation work? A bottom-up approach might be to refresh modules within a qualification, and then create new qualifications by rebundling sets of modules that together define some sort of coherent whole (this is how ‘as-if’ subject degrees were self-assembled by OU students in the Open Degree). A top-down approach might be to come up with an idea for a degree programme, and then commission modules to deliver that programme of study. Alternatively, we might look to mass-dynamics in a free choice system, such as an open degree, and come up with a middle-out(?) approach that suggests programmes of study that formalise the module collections freely chosen by students interested in studying a particular set of topics that make sense to them.

(It is interesting to note that possibly uniquely within UK Higher Education, The Open University had the scale of numbers in undergraduate students to start to say interesting things about the way students selected courses under the Open degree model. Furthermore, as popularity in “Big Data” solutions and recommendations driven by crowd-behaviour becomes commonplace, so the OU is reducing the amount of personalisation possible by pushing hard-coded, predefined pathways. At the same time, institutions such as Southampton University seem to be looking to open up personalisation pathways (for example, Southampton Curriculum innovation, discussed here: Graduates for the 21st Century – Curriculum innovation [audio]) and standalone HE level courses are increasingly available, sans credit, (as marketing warez; but for what exactly?) via the various open online course platforms.

So now we’re at the point where I actually wanted to start this post… How do we go about the process of curriculum innovation (for example, OECD Education Working Papers No. 82 – Bringing About Curriculum Innovations) given that we already have a load of inventory? If we sell credit points in particular subject areas or topics, how do we decide what topics to cover and how do we bundle those points up into qualifications?

One place to start might be mapping out where we are at the current time, which is where course data comes in. For example, what does the interest map based on learning outcomes delivered by your university actually look like? Or if you work in HE, do you know (or can you readily find out):

  • which modules are associated with any particular qualification?
  • which qualifications are associated with any particular module, either as a required or optional component?
  • which modules have path dependencies (eg where one module is the pre-requisite of another, or modules are excluded combinations)?
  • which module are required in which pathways, and which are optional?
  • in free choice modules (that maybe span programmes), which modules tend to be taken together?
  • which modules deliver which qualification level learning outcomes?
  • which modules deliver which sort of assessment types?
  • are there any modules that already offer particular learning outcomes at a particular level?

To provide a little more context, imagine these scenarios:

  • Module X is tired and needs to be replaced – what qualifications or other modules might be affected as a result? For example, does the module uniquely cover a a particular qualification level learning outcome, or assessment type?
  • A new qualification is proposed with a particular set of learning outcomes – what modules are available that already deliver some (or all) of these learning outcomes?
  • The quality folk want to know how your programme demonstrates progression across credit levels with respect to a particular set of subject related learning outcomes. Can you easily map this out?
  • The quality folk also want to know whether a particular course is gameable in terms of assessment types covered by the course modules. Could a student select a set of modules that means they never have to do teamwork, project work/report, a presentation, an exam, etc?
  • You need to generate a set of course transcripts (sets of learning outcomes, by credit level) for a proposed new assemblage of outstanding modules, some of which are core/compulsory modules, some of which are optional. Can you do it?
  • Do you have the scaffolding data available to build course recommenders based on population flows and module selections of previous cohorts of student?
  • Which modules deliver the content that potential students think they want to study, eg when searching your online course prospectus (you do use search logs for situational awareness around what potential students are searching for, don’t you?!)

So – how well do you fare?

[Note: this post is inspired by personal reflections around the University of Lincoln ON Course Course data project, on which I have, via the OU, a small consultancy retainer, and of which: more later.]

- Scraperwiki Powered OpenLearn Searches – Learning Outcomes and Glossary Items
- Generating OpenLearn Navigation Mindmaps Automagically

Written by Tony Hirst

January 3, 2013 at 12:10 pm

Posted in OU2.0

Tagged with ,

OU Launches FutureLearn Ltd

So it seems the Open University press office must have had an embargoed press release lined up for midnight, with a flurry of stories – and a reveal of the official press release on the OU site, partner quotes and briefing doc – about FutureLearn Ltd (Twitter: @future_learn)

Futurelearn Ltd log

Futurelearn original press release

Apparently, Futurelearn (not FutureLearn? The UEA press release uses CamelCase…) “will bring together a range of free, open, online courses from leading UK universities, in the same place and under the same brand.”

A bit like edX, then…?

future of online education

…only that’s for US unis… Or Coursera, which is open to all-comers, I think? Whereas Futurelearn looks as if it’ll be championing the cause of UK universities – apparently, Birmingham [UK universities embrace the free, open, online future of higher education], Bristol [UK universities embrace the free, open, online future of higher education powered by The Open University], Cardiff [Online future of higher education], East Anglia [UK universities embrace the online future of higher education], Exeter [UK universities embrace the free, open, online future of higher education powered by The Open University], King’s College London [Futurelearn – new online higher education initiative], Lancaster [Lancaster signs up for Futurelearn], Leeds [Leeds joins partners in offering free online access to education], Southampton [University of Southampton embraces the open, online future of higher education], St Andrews [news feed] and Warwick [Warwick joins other leading UK universities to create multiple MOOC giving free access to some of those Universities’ most innovative courses] have all signed up to join Futurelearn… (It’ll be interesting to see if HEIs that are trying out Coursera, such as Edinburgh, will joing Futurelearn, or whether exclusive agreements are in place? I also wonder about whether membership of any of the particular university groups will influence which “open” online course marketing outfit particular universities join?) [Other press releases: QAA: Open University launches UK-based Moocs platform]

[For what it's worth, the OU and UEA were the only press offices to break the story just after midnight. St Andrews is the last to release a press release. Birmingham and Kings were also tardy... I wonder whether some of the partners were waiting to see whether anyone picked up on the story before putting out their own press releases?]

Here’s some of the press coverage so far – I guess I should grab these reports and give each a churnalism score…?

Simon Nelson, whom I remember gave a presentation at the OU a few years ago when he was BBC multiplatform commissioner, has been appointed as CEO, so that could prove interesting… (FWIW, Simon Nelson Linked In page, directorships: Sineo Ltd, and I think Ludifi Ltd?) What might this mean for the OpenLearn brand, I wonder? Or for the Open University Apps, iBooks and Stores?

Structurally, “Futurelearn will be independent but majority-owned by the OU”, although as far as “partners” announced so far go, this “do[es] not constitute a partnership in the legal sense and the Parties shall not have authority to bind each other in any way. The term is used to indicate their support and intent to work together on this project.”

One possible response is that this is a playing out of an Emperor’s New Clothes marketing battle, but as with the evolution of any novel communication technology (seeing “MOOC’s” as such as thing), some of them do manage to lock-in… (And as George Siemens comments in Finally, alternatives to prominent MOOCs, “Even if MOOCs disappear from the landscape in the next few years, the change drivers that gave birth to them will continue to exert pressure and render slow plodding systems obsolete (or, perhaps more accurately, less relevant). If MOOCs are eventually revealed to be a fad, the universities that experiment with them today will have acquired experience and insight into the role of technology in teaching and learning that their conservative peers won’t have. It’s not only about being right, it’s about experimenting and playing in the front line of knowledge”.)

Futurelearn Ltd

Leagas Delaney, it seems, is some sort of brand communications agency. So much style on their website, I couldn’t actually work out the substance of what it is they actually do at this late hour (all I did was check my feeds quickly, just after midnight, as I was on my way to bed, and catch sight of the OU news release…).

PS No-one mention the warUKeU… (via Seb Schmoller (Futurelearn – an OU-led response to Coursera, Udacity, and MITx), I am reminded of Paul Bacsich’s Lessons to be learned from the failure of UKeU.)

PPS Now I’m wondering whether @dkernohan knew something I didn’t when he launched the MOOCAS/”MOOC Advisory Service” search engine a couple of days ago…?!;-)

[UPDATE: this was post was an early response that collated press stories released at end of embargo time. For a more considered review, check out Doug Clow's Futurelearn may or may not succeed but is well worth a try. Via @dkernohan, William Hammonds on the Universities UK blog: Are we witnessing higher education’s “digital moment”?]

[The views expressed within this post are barley even my personal ones, let alone anybody else's...]

Written by Tony Hirst

December 14, 2012 at 1:54 am

Posted in OU2.0

Tagged with

My ILI2012 Presentation – Derived Products from OpenLearn/OU XML Documents

FWIW, a copy of the slides I used in my ILI2012 presentation earlier this week – Making the most of structured content:data products from OpenLearn XML:

I guess this counts as a dissemination activity for my related eSTEeM project on course related custom search engines, since the work(?!) sort of evolved out of that idea…

The thesis is this:

  1. Course Units on OpenLearn are available as XML docs – a URL pointing to the XML version of a unit can be derived from the Moodle URL for the HTML version of the course; (the same is true of “closed” OU course materials). The OU machine uses the XML docs as a feedstock for a publication process that generates HTML views, ebook views, etc, etc of a course.
  2. We can treat XML docs as if they were database records; sets of structured XML elements can be viewed as if they define database tables; the values taken by the structured elements are like database table entries. Which is to say, we can treat each XML docs as a mini-database, or we we can trivially extract the data and pop it into a “proper”/”real” database.
  3. given a list of courses we can grab all the corresponding XML docs and build a big database of their contents; that is, a single database that contains records pulled from course XML docs.
  4. the sorts of things that we can pull out of a course include: links, images, glossary items, learning objectives, section and subsection headings;
  5. if we mine the (sub)section structure of a course from the XML, we can easily provide an interactive treemap version of the sections and subsections in a course; generating a Freemind mindmap document type, we can automatically generate course-section mindmap files that students can view – and annotate – in Freemind. We can also generate bespoke mindmaps, for example based on sections across OpenLearn courses that contain a particular search term.
  6. By disaggregating individual course units into “typed” elements or faceted components, and then reaggreating items of a similar class or type across all course units, we can provide faceted search across, as well as university wide “meta” view over, different classes of content. For example:
    • by aggregating learning objectives from across OpenLearn units, we can trivially create a search tool that provides a faceted search over just the learning objectives associated with each unit; the search returns learning outcomes associated with a search term and links to course units associated with those learning objectives; this might help in identifying reusable course elements based around reuse or extension of learning outcomes;
    • by aggregating glossary items from across OpenLearn units, we can trivially create a meta glossary for the whole of OpenLearn (or similarly across all OU courses). That is, we could produce a monolithic OpenLearn, or even OU wide, glossary; or maybe it’s useful to have redefine the same glossary terms using different definitions, rather than reuse the same definition(s) consistently across different courses? As with learning objectives, we can also create a search tool that provides a faceted search over just the glossary items associated with each unit; the search returns glossary items associated with a search term and links to course units associated with those glossary items;
    • by aggregating images from across OpenLearn units, we can trivially create a search tool that provides a faceted search over just the descriptions/captions of images associated with each unit; the search returns the images whose description/captions are associated with the search term and links to course units associated with those images. This disaggregation provides a direct way of search for images that have been published through OpenLearn. Rights information may also be available, allowing users to search for images that have been rights cleared, as well as openly licensed images.
  7. the original route in was the extraction of links from course units that could be used to seed custom search engines that search over resources referenced from a course. This could in principle also include books using Google book search.

I also briefly described an approach for appropriating Google custom search engine promotions as the basis for a search engine mediated course, something I think could be used in a sMoocH (search mediated MOOC hack). But then MOOCs as popularised have f**k all to do with innovation, don’t they, other than in a marketing sense for people with very little imagination.

During questions, @briankelly asked if any of the reported dabblings/demos (and there are several working demo) were just OUseful experiments or whether they could in principle be adopted within the OU, or even more widely across HE. The answers are ‘yes’ and ‘yes’ but in reality ‘yes’ and ‘no’. I haven’t even been able to get round to writing up (or persuading someone else to write up) any of my dabblings as ‘proper’ research, let alone fight the interminable rounds of lobbying and stakeholder acquisition it takes to get anything adopted as a rolled out as adopted innovation. If any of the ideas were/are useful, they’re Googleable and folk are free to run with them…but because they had no big budget holding champion associated with their creation, and hence no stake (even defensively) in seeing some sort of use from them, they unlikely to register anywhere.

Written by Tony Hirst

November 2, 2012 at 6:32 pm

University Apps, iBooks and Stores

I don’t quite remember how I came across this now, but it seems the OU has an appstore, of a sort – appstore.open.ac.uk – that provides a one stop place on the web for downloading a range of OU produced iOS and Android apps:

These range from the sorts of app you might expect – the StudyAtOU app, for example, which gives a rather more browser-centric way of browsing the OU’s course offerings compared to the PDF re-presenting OU Prospectus app, or the OU News app – as well as a range of “feature” apps: PhotoFit Me, a photofit testing game, or Devolve Me, another photo based app that takes you back through your evolutionary history. In a family learning context, the Our Story app “enables young children to take part in fun games which can help develop interests and skills that will be relevant to them when they start to read” (or so the blurb says…), and the Chinese Characters First Steps app draws on the OU’s Beginner’s Chinese module to provide a simple trainer around common Chinese characters.

I haven’t tried looking at that URL on a mobile device (Android or iOS), so I’m not sure how responsive the design might be…? (I’d guess there isn’t a tablet look’n’feel design that is passed through…?)

Out of interest – do any other UK HEIs host their own “appstore”? (Links in the comments please…:-)

In other news, the OU has finally publicly launched the “collaborative online learning space” that is SocialLearn. You can try it out here… SocialLearn

Also last week, an Open University press release announced “Another innovation milestone: The Open University launches iBooks textbooks for iPad”. I thought this had happened some time ago, with the Moon Rocks iBook (First Open University iBook now in Store, 27th March 2012), but I guess this relates the first offering of a new collection?!

(Ooh.. that’s interesting: there’s a £4.99 price tag on those iBooks (I wonder if OU staff get a discount? Or whether there are discount codes available that can be used for promotional purposes?))

The titles so far appear to concentrate on science topics. The OU has a long history in producing high quality interactives/educational software (and what used to be called “computer based learning” applications) across a wide range of subject areas using licensed, as well as in-house created, content, so it’ll be interesting to see if any iBooks appear in the art history or classics area, for example.

(By the by, interactive textbooks/new pedagogy for e-books was one of the things highlighted in the Innovating Pedagogy report, although not in the context of the OU as a “commercial” educational publisher.)

In much the same way that BBC commercialised many of its offerings through BBC Worldwide, the OU also has a commercial arm – Open University Worldwide, a site that looks as if it is now hosted as an Amazon webstore:

This sells OU/BBC co-pro DVDs (at a higher price than on the main Amazon website, I notice?) as well as a range of other products, including software, print materials/study guides and home experiment kits (including the Arduino like Senseboard, due out early next year). I’m not sure if the way Apple locks down iContent means that the iBooks won’t be available on the Amazon powered OUW webstore?

The store seems to be missing a couple of tricks on the OU marketing front, though, such as areas featuring books by OU academics and books by OU alumni which I think the OU’s “physical” library folk track (i.e I think there are shelves for books by OU academics and OU students/alumni), even if they don’t post related lists of titles online anywhere? (I’m guessing the affiliate fees from any sales would be negligible…the point more is one of showcasing the range of OU family commercial cultural/content outputs.)

I suspect that the sale of books required for OU courses is not an option (because of other bookseller agreements, it wasn’t when I asked years ago when I was tinkering with the now completely broken course booksearch (the backend server has been taken down)…which in passing reminds me of what I think was the only entry to the JISC MOSAIC competition that didn’t receive a prize/honourable mention: books around courses.) As far as second-hand books go, there’s always the “unofficial” OU second-hand bookstore University Book Search.

Again, are there any other UK HEIs running Amazon webstores? I see from the Amazon “seller showcase” that the Ashmolean shop is at least one?

The mainstay of OUW operations is (I think) licensing of OU warez, course materials and courses to local partners. A recent job ad for a Business Development Manager (International Education Agents) suggests that there may be an international push coming on this front?

Open University Worldwide Ltd, which is part of the OU’s Business Development Unit, is looking to recruit a Business Development Manager (International Educational Agents). This post will be involved in supporting the OU to expand its international business through relationships with local agents or partners delivering OU qualifications to individual students and corporates in strategic markets.

You will develop and implement The Open University’s new business development strategy for global partnerships, specifically focussing on the recruitment, management and growth of a network of agents to take OU products and services to B2C and B2B markets internationally.

You will be required to grow and maintain sustainable business relationships with key decision makers in potential agent/partner organisations in selected markets, in order to market the OU offer and secure business opportunities

You will also work with external stakeholders in key international markets to secure relevant, accurate and timely market information. To identify, develop and close business opportunities to meet agreed financial targets.

PS Just as an aside, I wish the template for the OU appstore made use of name anchors so that I could link directly to the appropriate section within the page – something like appstore.open.ac.uk/#studyatou, for example; here’s what the item template currently looks like:

PPS For what it’s worth, I also link to some of the iOS apps from my OU Programmes currently on iPlayer hack:

Maybe I should also add in a widget to OU/BBC DVDs available on Amazon…?!;-)

Written by Tony Hirst

November 1, 2012 at 6:56 pm

Posted in OBU, OU2.0

MOOC Reflections

A trackback a week or two ago to my blog from this personal blog post: #SNAc week 1: what are networks and what use is it to study them? highlighted me to a MOOC currently running on Coursera on social network analysis. The link was contextualised in the post as follows: The recommended readings look interesting, but it’s the curse of the netbook again – there’s no way I’m going to read a 20 page PDF on a screen. Some highlighted resources from Twitter and the forum look a bit more possible: … Some nice ‘how to’ posts: … (my linked to post was in the ‘howto’ section).

The whole MOOC hype thing at the moment seems to be dominated by references to the things like Coursera, Udacity and edX (“xMOOCs”). Coursera in particularly is a new sort of intermediary, a website that offers some sort of applied marketing platform to universities, allowing them to publish sample courses in a centralised, browsable, location and in a strange sense legitimising them. I suspect there is some element of Emperor’s New Clothes thinking going on in the universities who have opted in and those who may be considering it: “is this for real?”; “can we afford not to be a part of it?”

Whilst Coursera has an obvious possible business model – charge the universities for hosting their marketing material courses – Udacity’s model appears more pragmatic: provide courses with the option of formal assessment via Pearson VUE assessment centres, and then advertise your achievements to employers on the Udacity site; presumably, the potential employers and recruiters (which got me thinking about what role LinkedIn might possibly play in this space?) are seen as the initial revenue stream for Udacity. Note that Udacity’s “credit” awarding powers are informal – in the first instance, credibility is based on the reputation of the academics who put together the course; in contrast, for courses on Coursera, and the rival edX partnership (which also offers assessment through Pearson VUE assessment centres), credibility comes from the institution that is responsible for putting together the course. (It’s not hard to imagine a model where institutions might even badge courses that someone else has put together…)

Note that Coursera, Udacity and edX are all making an offering based on quite a traditional course model idea and are born out of particular subject disciplines. Contrast this in the first part with something like Khan Academy, which is providing learning opportunities at a finer level of granularity/much smaller “learning chunks” in the form of short video tutorials. Khan Academy also provides the opportunity for Q&A based discussion around each video resource.

Also by way of contrast are the “cMOOC” style offerings inspired by the likes of George Siemens, Stephen Downes, et al., where a looser curriculum based around a set of topics and initially suggested resources is used to bootstrap a set of loosely co-ordinated personal learning journeys: learners are encouraged to discover, share and create resources and feed them into the course network in a far more organic way than the didactic, rigidly structured approach taken by the xMOOC platforms. The cMOOC style also offeres the possibility of breaking down subject disciplines through accepting shared resources contributed because they are relevant to the topic being explored, rather than because they are part of the canon for a particular discipline.

The course without boundaries approach of Jim Groom’s ds106, as recently aided and abetted by Alan Levine, also softens the edges of a traditionally offered course with its problem based syllabus and open assignment bank (particpants are encouraged to submit their own assignment ideas) and turns learning into something of a lifestyle choice… (Disclaimer: regular readers will know that I count the cMOOC/ds106 “renegades” as key forces in developing my own thinking…;-)

Something worth considering about the evolution of open education from early open content/open educational resource (OER) repositories and courseware into the “Massive Open Online Course” thing is just what caused the recent upsurge in interest? Both MIT opencourseware and the OU’s OpenLearn offerings provided “anytime start”, self-directed course units; but my recollection is that it was Thrun & Norvig’s first open course on AI (before Thrun launched Udacity), that captured the popular (i.e. media) imagination because of the huge number of students that enrolled. Rather than the ‘on-demand’ offering of OpenLearn, it seems that the broadcast model, and linear course schedule, along with the cachet of the instructors, were what appealed to a large population of demonstrably self-directed learners (i.e. geeks and programmers, who spend their time learning how to weave machines from ideas).

I also wonder whether the engagement of universities with intermediary online course delivery platforms will legitimise online courses run by other organisations; for example, the Knight Centre Massive Open Online Courses portal (a Moodle environment) is currently advertising it’s first MOOC on infographics and data visualisation:

Similar to other Knight Center online courses, this MOOC is divided into weekly modules. But unlike regular offerings, there will be no application or selection process. Anyone can sign up online and, once registered, participants will receive instructions on how to enroll in the course. Enrollees will have immediate access to the syllabus and introductory information.

The course will include video lectures, tutorials, readings, exercises and quizzes. Forums will be available for discussion topics related to each module. Because of the “massive” aspect of the course, participants will be encouraged to provide feedback on classmates’ exercises while the instructor will provide general responses based on chosen exercises from a student or group of students.

Cairo will focus on how to work with graphics to communicate and analyze data. Previous experience in information graphics and visualization is not needed to take this course. With the readings, video lectures and tutorials available, participants will acquire enough skills to start producing compelling, simple infographics almost immediately. Participants can expect to spend 4-6 hours per week on the course.

Although the course will be free, if participants need to receive a certificate, there will be a $20 administrative fee, paid online via credit card, for those who meet the certificate requirements. The certificate will be issued only to students who actively participated in the course and who complied with most of the course requirements, such as quizzes and exercises. The certificates will be sent via email as a PDF document. No formal course credit of any kind is associated with the certificate.

Another of the things that I’ve been pondering is the role that “content” may or not play a role in this open course thing. Certainly, where participants are encouraged to discover and share resources, or where instructors seek to construct courses around “found resources”, an approach espoused by the OU’s new postgraduate strategy, it seems to me that there is an opportunity to contribute to the wider open learning idea by producing resources that can be “found”. For resources to be available as found resources, we need the following:

  1. Somebody needs to have already created them…
  2. They need to be discoverable by whoever is doing the finding
  3. They need to be appropriately licensed (if we have to go through a painful rights clearnance and rights payment model, the cost benefits of drawing on and freely reusing those resources are severely curtailed).

Whilst the running of a one shot MOOC may attract however many participants, the production of finer grained (and branded) resources that can be used within those courses means that a provider can repeatedly, and effortlessly, contribute to other peoples courses through course participants pulling the resources into those coure contexts. (It also strikes me that educators in one institution could sign up for a course offered by another, and then drop in links to their own applied marketing learning materials.)

One thing I’ve realised from looking at Digital Worlds uncourse blog stats is that some of the posts attract consistent levels of traffic, possibly because they have been embedded to from other course syllabuses. I also occasionally see flurries of downloads of tutorial files, which makes me wonder whether another course has linked to resources I originally produced. If we think of the web in it’s dynamic and static modes (static being the background links that are part of the long term fabric of the web, dynamic as the conversation and link sharing that goes on in social networks, as well as the publication of “alerts” about new fabric (for example, the publication of a new blog post into the static fabric of the web is announced through RSS feeds and social sharing as part of the dynamic conversation)), then the MOOCs appear to be trying to run in a dynamic, broadcast mode. Whereas what interests me is how we can contribute to the static structure of the web, and how we can make better use of it in a learning context?

PS a final thought – running scheduled MOOCs is like a primetime broadcast; anytime independent start is like on-demand video. Or how about this: MOOCs are like blockbuster books, published to great fanfare and selling millions of first day, pre-ordered copies. But there’s also long tail over time consumption of the same books… and maybe also books that sell steadily over time without great fanfare. Running a course once is all well and good; but it feels too ephemeral, and too linear rather than networked thinking to me?

Written by Tony Hirst

October 9, 2012 at 9:04 am

BBC Question Time “Extra Guest” – On Twitter…

For some time, BBC Question Time has benefitted from an active online live commentariat via SMS/text messages displayed on a lower third ticker, and on on Twitter around the #bbcqt hashtag.

Now, via @federicacocco, I notice that BBC Question Time has a new Twitter account associated with it, @BBCExtraGuest:

Here’s some sort of confirmation, from the official @bbcquestiontime account, that it’s legitimate:

When the OU co-produces a programme or series with the BBC, one or more nominated academics act as advisers to the programme, contributing ideas, checking correctness, providing feedback about how ideas are portrayed and communicated, and so on. Increasingly, academic advisers also contribute one or more related articles to OpenLearn in support of the programme(s). On the odd occasion when I’ve: a) managed to watch a programme during its live broadcast; and b) noticed hashtag activity around it, I’ve tried to chip in by sharing relevant links and additional comments. Where related content has gone up on the OpenLearn site in advance, I’ve also tried to share the odd link to that into the hashtag stream. (Yes, I know, it’s like introducing an ad into the stream…)

The “extra guest” twist that BBC Question Time are introducing is one that maybe we can also adopt at the OU? @OUAcademic, maybe, a rotating “guest” slot in which a nominated academic can tweet along to a live broadcast of an OU/BBC co-pro?

PS to keep track of OU/BBC co-pros, see:

PPS for a quick sketch comparing the folk commonly followed by the users of the #bbcqt and #newsnight hashtags, (that is, an approximation of the common and different social interests of the audiences of those two programmes) see Social Media Interest Maps of Newsnight and BBCQT Twitterers.

Written by Tony Hirst

September 24, 2012 at 10:39 am

Posted in BBC, OU2.0

A Gust of Wind Blows Across HE…

From various sources (@kavubob, @mweller via @peter_scott, @downes and others), I notice:

A couple more riffs on the above:

  • Pearson are playing multiple sides, offering testing for both the upstarts (eg Udacity) and the incumbents’ response (edX). They also have a major stake in school (i.e. K12) and further education content (textbooks, curricula) and assessment (e.g. EdExcel is a Pearson company), and they seem to be testing the waters with their own HE offerings in the form of Pearson College. Start to twitch a bit more if they start offering campus management solutions. Also look out for them bulking up their learning analytics offerings
  • Although the OU has started offering academic wrappers around imported vendor certificates, I don’t think an equivalent course wrapper yet serves as a way of wrapping informal and semi-formal online courses, such as offerings from P2PU, Coursera, Udacity etc etc. There is at least one “officially” offered MOOC on “Learning Design”, though… (One of the models I wanted to explore with the T151 Game Design and Development 10 point short course in its final presentation was a fully open presentation with an additional for credit component based around the submission of a portfolio for credit bearing assessment. The legacy would have been a 10 point wrapper for importing informal online course activity, “proven” using an OU presented course. Maybe there’ll be a similar sort of finesse around the Learning Design MOOC? I’d certainly hope so…
  • I note that the OU runs exams at a wide variety of examination centres (often in local colleges), so to an extent the OU already models the behaviour being adopted by edX. There are, however, a couple of notable differences: a) the OU, rather than a commercial operation such as Pearson, manages exams at local centres; b) the OU offers tutor and/or moderated forum based support to students on OU courses. Providing tutor/associate lecturer support (including face to face tutorials at local centres) to students on a 1:320 ratio or so is expensive though… I’m not sure how the costs associated with providing online moderation at a ratio of 1:100 or so scale up with increasing course sizes (eg when you factor in recruitment and briefing/training costs, as well as the costs of assessment/marking related moderation exercises etc).
  • I should probably say something about badges here, but don’t have the will to!

See also: Checking HE for Cracks.

PS re: the outsourcing of campus facilities management, I thought I’d better check… and came across this (Sussex Uni tenders for campus services) from May, 2012 (contract notice):

The University of Sussex is seeking bids to manage its estates and facilities services, which are run in-house at an annual cost of £20 million.

The move, to be completed by August next year, “is expected to bring wider market experience and expertise to the university to enable it to meet the increasing demands of a highly competitive environment”, according to a statement.

The story is still running… Unions left ‘in the dark’ over outsource plans. Companies in the ballpark – Carillion, maybe? eg they appear to have been contractors for construction works at UWE, Hertfordshire.

PPS Facilities talk reminds me of this, which relates in part to management of facilities data: Facilities and Equipment Sharing Network.

PPPS via @brlamb, Pearson ‘Education’ — Who Are These People?, which looks at some of the lobbying going around around US teacher performance assessment.

Written by Tony Hirst

September 6, 2012 at 6:15 pm

Open Research Data Processes: KMi Crunch – Hosted RStudio Analytics Environment

One of the possible barriers to widespread adoption of open notebook science is knowing where to start. Video reports of lab experiments hosted on Youtube can be easily embedded in a hosted WordPress blog; a MediaWiki wiki can be used to provide one page per experiment, with change tracking/history on each page and a shadow page for commentary and discussion; Github can be used to provide a version control environment for software code, results data, project pages and documentation. For tabulated data, Google Spreadsheets provides a hosting environment and an API that lets you treat the data as a database and also explore it dashboard style via a range of interactive visual filtering and charting components. Alternatively, a CKAN instance (such as is used to run thedatahub.org) offers data management and preview tools.

Keeping track of data analysis in an open way is also getting easier. In An R-chitecture for Reproducible Research/Reporting/Data Journalism, I briefly mentioned RPubs.com, a site that can be used to 1-click publish HTML reports of statistical analyses executed within the RStudio environment (I really need to do a proper post about this). But now there’s an example of another hosted solution from Fridolin Wild of the OU’s KMi: Crunch.

Crunch offers a hosted RStudio environment (so you can access RStudio via a browser) with public and private areas. The public areas allow you to post datasets, run scripts as a service, or publish results (Sweave generated PDFs, or knitr generated HTML reports, for example).

Crunch also incorporates a MySQL database for each user. (Scheduling and pipelining are also on the cards…)

Whilst developed as an application to support learning analytics (I think?), Crunch also provides a great demonstration of a more general open research data workbench. You can store – and publish – data sets, along with analysis scripts and reports generated by executing those scripts over your data set. Version control isn’t available at the moment (I think?) but RSTudio does have git/github support, so that may be coming. The provision of a MySql database means that data collections can be managed within a database environment. (From a data journalism, rather than an open/reproducible research, perspective, I did wonder whether it would be possible to situate something like Scraperwiki on the same platform and replace its SQLite support with MySQL support, so a Scraperwiki scraper could be used to scrape data into a MySQL database that was then accessed from RStudio? Being able to wire MySQL read/write access into Google Refine on the same platform could also be interesting..;-)

I’m not sure about the extent to which the OU LIbrary is taking an interest in the development of Crunch, but providing best practice support and advice in the orchestration of information and data handling tools seems to me to be in-scope for the academic research librarian, in much the same way as advising on the use of bibliography data management tools used to be…? (For a recent take on this, see Dorothea Salo’s recent Ariadne article Retooling Libraries for the Data Challenge.)

Written by Tony Hirst

August 23, 2012 at 10:24 am

The Business of HE Moves On…

A smattering of business-of-education stories from my feeds today:

  • Hot on the heels of the Condé Nast College of Fashion and Design, Publishing firm Pearson announce Pearson College, a private university that will start off by offering a business related degree (BSc (Honours) Business and Enterprise) accredited by Royal Holloway and Bedford New College (hmm… doesn’t that mean “Pearson College” should be a listed body?*). From September 2013, they’re looking to offer BSc(Hons) degrees in Computing as well as Engineering (“with pathways in Electrical, Electronic, Mechanical and Manufacturing”). It seems like work experience/partnering is a key part of the initiative, with programmes being marketed to organisations as much as students (“There are significant benefits to be gained by embedding our Pearson degrees within an organisation’s learning and development, and/or talent development programmes, and in contributing to the design of our programmes.” And if you need help with your talent management process, Pearson can help you out there too…. Hmmm….) This is quite an interesting play, I think – setting up as a provider to industry of embedded degree bearing training/”talent development” programmes. It doesn’t much contribute to the notion of universities as academic playspaces that support open-ended reflection and idea creation though…
    Entry is by interview and either 320 UCAS points or success on the Pearson College Aptitude Test, whatever that is… Fees are set at £6500 per year for a 3 year course, £8k a year if you fancy a two year sprint, or £4875 if you take it over 4 years. According to the blurb:

    “Pearson students have the choice of studying in either central London or central Manchester at our attractive, modern premises. At Pearson you will be studying business from within a business, so your lectures and seminars are held in classrooms within our corporate premises. You’ll be part of a business and an academic community from day one, immersed in the atmosphere of a modern office environment.”

    They also offer accommodation in student residences via private hall providers (Liberty Living in Manchester, Opal Property Group in London).

    I’m intrigued to see who their engineering partners turn out to be…

  • Over in the short course corner, it seems that Coventry University are working with the Intellectual Property Office and the British Library to offer a two and a half day residential IP Masterclass. At £990 + VAT, it offers delegates the “opportunity” to gain 15 credits at Masters level/Level 7 which can then be put towards a range of postgrad qualifications. I’m not sure how this works – at undergrad level, one rule of thumb is 10 hours study per CATS point (split 2 hours teaching and 8 hours private study per point), so with say 20 hours of teaching over two and a half days, you’d also expect to add in another 130 hours of private study to get 15 points. Presumably there’s homework if you want to pick the credit opportunity up?

    With MBAs coming in at 180 points, twelve of these courses (6 working weeks if you take them back-to-back) would get you the “opportunity” to claim the required points haul.

  • And arising from the ashes of MIT opencourseware, it seems as if some enterprising alumni from an MITx course are using opencourseware to run a follow on course: 6.003z: A Learner-Created MOOC Spins Out of MITx. As more folk start to realise they can self-organise, it’ll be interesting to see how these plays out – and whether there’ll be any institutional backlash, response or opportunistic land grab (eg taking over a community driven course, or stepping in to offer accreditation for it).

* Given that it is up to Recognised Bodies to inform BIS of who their providers are, wouldn’t it be great if each Recognised Body also had to publish this data in a standard form as open public data?

Related: OU Innovating pedagogy report: publisher-led mini-courses, Is Education Working? and Media, Erm, Studies?.

Written by Tony Hirst

August 15, 2012 at 8:29 pm

Posted in edubiz, OU2.0

News Corp in K12 Education Play

One of the sections of the OU’s new Innovating Pedagogy report (the first in what is intended to be an ongoing review series), refers to Publisher-led mini courses, a consideration of how news publishers may encroach on or enter the informal HE/lifelong learning or CPD markets through partnerships with HEIs or otherwise.

Whilst the OU’s business interests – and hence the focus of the report – are not on primary or secondary (K12) education (aside from teacher training considerations), today I notice that News Corp has announced an entrance into the K12 market: “News Corp unveils ‘Amplify’ to bring digitial innovation to K12 innovation”:

Today, News Corporation unveiled the brand and business of its Education Division. Amplify is dedicated to reimagining K-12 education by creating digital products and services that empower students, teachers and parents in new ways. Amplify will enhance the potential of students with new curricular experiences, support teachers with new instructional tools and engage parents through extended learning opportunities. Amplify will introduce these unique and pioneering offerings in collaboration with AT&T.

Amplify appears to be offering a tablet based play to compete with the K12 textbook market, offering rich interactive content with value adding learning analytics. Learning analytics and formative assessment are provided by another Amplify (i.e. News Corp) company, wireless generation (News Corp acquired a 90% stake in Wireless Generation in November 2010: FT: News Corp ‘bet’ on education sector). By the by, it seems Wireless Generation has itself been on the acquisition trail recently: Wireless Generation Buys Assessment Company Intel-Assess.

There’s not a lot of substance on the Amplify site yet, so rather than rehash it here, I suggest you poke around the site yourself and see what jumps out (feel free to mention anything interesting you find in the comments;-) If that seems like to much hard work, try this report from GigaOm: How will News Corps’ new ed tech business ‘Amplify’ education?.

From a quick dig around, though, Amplify appears to be focussing on delivery rather than credentialed assessment. I wondered briefly if that might be because it could introduce a conflict of interest if the company provided both content and assessment services, but presumably not, as the OU’s Innovating Pedagogy report noted:

[I]n the UK Pearson operate EdExcel for the assessment of GCSE, GCE (A-level) and BTEC/vocational qualifications. Pearson has recently bought vocational trainers Education Development International and assessment and testing providers Centiport. If education is ripe for disruption, it may be that the assessment of training and the offering of examination services at higher levels of education will provide a route by which publishers can develop credibility in the assessment and award of an ever wider range of qualification products based around their content offerings.

A couple of other things that strike me about the announcement, and that I should really try to ponder further: the extent to which the economics of education are influenced by the content business (maybe Andy Lane will chip in with a comment about the business model of school education..?;-); and the rate at which performance tracking and learning analytics style approaches are going to focus attention on reporting dashboards than human teacher-pupil relationships.

I also wonder about the role of plurality in all this? In the UK, the notion of media plurality “helps to support a democratic society by ensuring citizens are informed by a diverse range of views and by preventing too much influence over political processes by one media owner or outlet”, or at least, that’s what a June 2012 press release announcing an OfCom report on measuring media plurality claims. But how about in education? How about in education where the publishers who control either – or both – the content and the means of certified assessment are also news publishers? How far should the notion of plurality extend then? Across all content businesses, including education?

Written by Tony Hirst

July 25, 2012 at 10:03 am

Posted in OU2.0, Paranoia, Policy


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