Category: OU2.0

From the University of the Air to the University of the Cloud…

Skimming over a recent speech given to the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities conference by the OU VC (The future for Open and Distance Universities. Discussing the move from the University of the Air to the University of the Cloud), the following quotes look like they may be handy at some point…

We were disruptive and revolutionary in our use of technology back then [1969], and as we approach our 50th year, we intend to be disruptive and revolutionary again, to transform the life chances of tens of thousands of future students. When we are thinking of change, it is important that our own enthusiasm for it should not run away with itself. It should be for the sake of our students and for our mission.

Disruptive and revolutionary… I wonder either of those mean in practical terms? Or is that still to be defined… In which case… ;-)

At a time of unprecedented change and recognising future economic challenges, we have a crucial role to play in helping employers and employees respond to the rapid rise in automation which is expected to sweep away millions of existing jobs.

The ability for people to upskill and reskill will become crucial in ways we can’t yet predict, and where students will need to be equipped to thrive as digitally-enabled citizens – people who are not just victims of digital change, but people who can take advantage of it.

“[D]igitally-enabled citizens” – defined how?

We can and should help tackle this economic inequality from this employment disruption, and the resulting social inequality, by creating a positive digital learning experience and building essential digital skills – truly modernising our missions for this Century.

How so?

Reflecting on changes to BBC newsroom:

But more significantly using the capabilities of digital media to their full – by which I mean interactivity, direct contribution from the audience, collaborative newsgathering and a levelling of the relationship between institution and audience/consumer.

BBC Me?! ;-)

I recall the BBC’s then UK political editor, Nick Robinson, starting to blog (this was preTwitter). He would post updates after he had picked up initial political intelligence in the morning. He found that political insiders would contact him either privately or online, adding information or possibly contradicting the initial account he had published.

By making his journalism more open and more contingent he gathered more information and tested his thinking, so that by the end of the day when he came to broadcast on the “conventional” broadcast bulletin he would not only have provided a better and faster news service during the day but his final polished TV output would have benefitted by that open testing and development.

T151 was blogged in its production. The content is still there (content from several years ago on I wish I’d added notes to some related presentations from the time…

[W]e don’t need to invent some radical vision of the future in order to think how we should be changing. Rather we need to look around us carefully now and observe what is interesting and extrapolate from there.

There’s a lot of current world out there that I don’t think we’ve been watching… And a lot of recent past/passed blogged here on over the last 10 years…

So, I suggest, looking at trends in knowledge sectors – publications, books, music – that have changed earlier and faster, such as the news media, can provide lessons for universities. I realise that it can be sacrilegious in some academic circles to draw comparisons with media, content and indeed the news.

Yep. I’d also be looking at things like reproducible research workflows…

News of course is ephemeral and inevitably less perfect or polished than carefully crafted academic content. But there are at least some lessons.

Firstly, the cultural ones. In parts of academia, although thankfully less so in distance and online universities, there is still a patrician culture, de haut en bas, in terms of professional practice. That we are the intellectual priesthood, dispensing tablets of knowledge. Of course we need to treasure our expertise and our standards. But when we are teaching people who are often mature, who have their own experience of life and work, we have to be more modest. And the internet and interactivity keeps us honest and modest.

And we could maybe be more transparent in our working, as per Nick Robinson…

And we need to be aware that we are competing with news media, and other content, for the attention of students, either in the initial choice of whether they sign up for our courses or for their attention when attractive content is drawing them away from their studies once they are taking a course.

Competition in a couple of ways: attention and economic (eg pounds per hour of attention as well as number of hours).

So why don’t we care even more about how readable, how visual, how stimulating and grabby, how entertaining or provocative our courses are?

Or whether anyone even looks at them?

And do our materials always have to be absolutely perfect, especially if perfection is costly and slow, unresponsive and non-topical? Good enough content, I’m afraid to say, has a huge following. Just look at YouTube. And when it is online if it needs improving, it can be done easily.

I think if we are responsive in posting corrections, we can be much quicker in production, and also benefit from “production in presentation” in first run (at least) of courses. Or uncourse them in their production.

I always told BBC journalists and producers that making content attractive was not a contradiction with quality, it is not selling out or dumbing down, it is an essential accompaniment. If you don’t make academic content and the learning experience as stimulating and modern as the other content choices in the lives of students, don’t be surprised if students lose attention or drop out.

Repeated rinse and repeats in drafts and editing take all the character out of our content… And it still goes to students littered with errors and untested by “users” in the first presentation at least…

Of course the immediacy of the feedback of on-line helps enormously as we can know at once what is working for students.

But then, when we get feedback about eg errors in material, in can take till the next presentation of the course a year later for them to be properly addressed. (I don’t know why we can’t A/B test stuff, either? Clinical trials seem to get away with it…)

I hope you can see how many of those cultural and professional practice issues in other content fields have a direct application to universities and distance learning. Too many of us are still working in a mindset where we see digital as a cost effective alternative to the traditional pedagogy of distance learning books and materials.

What’s that saying? Digital isn’t cost effective? Erm…

At the centre of the UK Open University’s changes in the months and years ahead will be to exploit fully the affordances of digital to the learning needs of future society and future students. Of course, we will take into account concerns about delivering for our existing students and make sure that the transition to that more fully digitally designed world is carried out carefully, carrying them with us.

So what are the “affordances of the digital”? I can think of a view but they are predicated on changed production and presentation models together

[I]t is not the radical, niche technologies that should interest us, but rather those that have the possibility to become, as Shirky has it, ‘boring’. The basic attributes of digital that can reform learning have not changed significantly since the beginning of social media about ten years ago. It is just that they are not fully adopted in our learning practices.

Still not sure what the point is here? Such as…?

With this in mind I will also add the usual caveat that attempting to predict the future is nearly always foolhardy, and so I will limit my conjectures to thinking about two aspects: the main areas that we might suggest will drive change within open and distance universities; and the context within which those universities are operating.

Best way to predict is invent; next best way is to explore the stuff other folk are inventing. That’s partly what is about…

To look at the first of these, what are the current trends, developments or technologies that might represent what William Gibson described as the future that is already here.

There are three broad elements of particular interest to open and distance universities that I will highlight, although there are undoubtedly more we could address. These are Data, Openness and Flexibility.

To take the first of these, data, it is a commonplace to observe that the generation, analysis and interpretation of data is now a significant factor in society in a manner it was not just ten years ago. There is talk of data capitalism, data surveillance and data as the new oil. But what does this mean for universities, and in particular ones operating at a distance?

There are undoubted benefits we can give to our students in a data rich world, via learning analytics. At the Open University we are aligning analytics with learning design to help us inform which designs are more effective in retaining students and meeting their needs.

We can tell which elements of a course are aligned with effective performance and which ones are less well correlated. This is the type of feedback we have never managed before when we were sending out boxes of printed materials. The critical thing is to show students that their experience with something that for some of them is less familiar is going to create benefits for them.

I still don’t know if anyone ever reads a particular page, clicks on a particular link, etc etc…

And this type of feedback changes the definitions of our engagement with students and our ability to be able to respond to their needs. Our previous techniques for capturing student feedback would involve them completing a written, then later online, survey after taking a module, quite often a long time after their learning experience in question. Those feedback methods inevitably require some effort on the part of the student and the face to face focus group necessarily involves a behaviour – travelling to a physical point – that inevitably excludes certain categories of students.

We are now introducing much more immediate forms of response (I’m not sure that feedback is an accurate term any more, as this is now a less deliberate process for students) We are capturing immediate response data. For instance on our Student Home help page students are asked to click a simple green thumbs-up or red thumbs-down to indicate whether their query has been answered effectively.

Our teams monitor those “thumbs” in real time and refine responses in turn and feedback issues immediately to the learning/module teams. We intend to roll out this approach from our student experience site to all of the virtual learning environment next year, in time for our main autumn presentation, so that we can be responding to students and improving their learning experience in real time.

We are also able to use data to help inform our tutors, our Associate Lecturers, about their students. Of course, Associate Lecturers have their own direct relationships with students who are studying most intensively or enthusiastically – but it is the students who are not engaging and the data that is not being created on our system that can help tutors intervene positively.

And we should also be generous and non-proprietary with the data we give to students to help them monitor and shape their own learning.

We should also be more thoughtful about who we divulge student data to, eg though the use of third party tracking services where we reveal student behaviours to third parties, who then sell the data back to us. (And if they don’t sell it to us, how are they generating revenue from it?)

To now consider Openness. Openness now comes in many different forms, it is not just about the open access to higher education it was when the OU was founded. Now it covers open educational resources, MOOCs, open access publications, open textbooks and open educational practice.

In this, open universities need to continue to adapt and be involved in the changing nature of openness in higher education. The adoption of elements of openness across the higher education sphere really hints at a much bigger shift, which is the blurring of boundaries.

This brings me onto the third element, that of flexibility. This can come in many different forms. The open model of education has always been about flexibility – allowing students to choose from a range of courses, to take a break in their study, to combine different size courses.

However, we need to challenge ourselves. When we have asked our students and our potential students about flexibility they have told us that the flexibility is often only a flexibility that is on the university’s terms, not on theirs. Some students want to speed up their study, others want to be able to slow it down. Some want the option to be able to do both, according to the circumstances of their lives. And this is where digital’s infinite flexibility will be the servant of the student’s demand for flexibility.

This challenges the traditional assumptions of the academic year that are still built into the mindset of many academics. And it challenges us to offer a varied and flexible experience that might make us have to be more flexible than we have been used to.

I fancy the idea of alumni as lifelong learners, paying  a subscription to access all our content (think: Netflix), perhaps including course materials that are also currently in production (if we can’t be so open as to draft out materials, and try them out, in public), chunked in tiny chunks (say, 30 mins of “attention time”, or so). We could track the popular pathways – there may be new courses or market intelligence in them…

I come from a digital news media environment where the expectation of immediate high quality content on the terms of the audience were gradually adopted by the organisation – an organisation that had been used to serving the news at a time when the BBC was ready to give it to people. That revolution happened in news at least 15 years ago. Universities are just about catching up.

But we will in the future push this flexibility further as students and employers demand it. For instance we are, as many of you are I expect, exploring flexible forms of Assessment. Can we accredit much more learning from elsewhere? Can we assess and offer credit for practical learning from the workplace on a much more systematic and responsive basis? Can we give the student a more flexible choice of assessment? Are we prepared to move from assessment “of learning” to assessment “for learning”?

Just to note, BXM871 – Managing in the digital economy: “This module offers a process to gain academic credit for your study of The Open University MOOCs that comprise the FutureLearn Digital Economy program. Your knowledge, understanding and skills from the MOOCs will be supplemented by learning materials supporting critical thinking, reflection and study skills appropriate to masters level assessment. You will have access to ‘light touch’ advice from a learning advisor, but please be aware that (as with the MOOCs you bring to the module as prior learning) you need to be a proactive learner to benefit from the materials and activities supplied (peer-review, case studies, readings and online discussion). Activities and assessment address your own professional situation, culminating in an extended written assignment integrating your prior MOOC learning in the context of challenges posed by technological change.”

The use of data, open resources and artificial intelligence has the potential to offer students different types of content within an overall course structure, better personalised to their interests and needs.

Oh, God, no, please not AI Snake Oil…

On the changing economics and business models, if we were following tech, we’d be looking for two-sided market opportunities. But do we really want to do that..?

We need to consider these three elements in relation to a final aspect – the context within which universities operate, and the changing nature of society.

We live in a world where fake news and the negative role of social media sometimes determine public policy. I suspect that quite a large number of us in this room were naturally early techno-optimists. But as the polarising, degrading and demeaning aspects of extreme opinions and abusive content online undermine the cohesion of societies I believe that there is a natural swing towards techno-pessimism.

But the overwhelming shift towards a digital world cannot be held back just because we have some reservations and we should not despair. We need to be as committed to creating a constructive information society in the digital world as we have been over centuries IRL. And we will succeed in our civilising role.

All universities, but particularly I believe, open and distance ones who have a purpose in educating the wider population, have a particular role in helping to produce graduates who understand how to make effective use of these tools in their education, but also in being good networked citizens.

I always liked the strapline of the Technology Short Course Programme – “Relevant Knowledge”. I also think folk should leave our courses knowing how to do things, or seeing how some “big ideas” could help them in the workplace. In short, we should be equipping people to engage critically, as well as productively, with technology.  As it is, I’m not convinced we always deliver on that…:-(

Here at The Open University we are trying to respond to these challenges while retaining our core mission of offering higher education to all, regardless of background or previous qualifications.

We want to transform the University of the Air envisaged by Harold Wilson in the 1960s to a University of the Cloud – a world-leading institution which is digital by design and has a unique ability to teach and support our students in a way that is responsive both to their needs and those of the economy and society.

Open and Distance education universities face an exciting and challenging time. Exciting in that they hold much of the expertise and practice needed to address many of the challenges facing higher education and society in general. Challenging in that they no longer hold a monopoly on much of this and must adapt to new market forces and pressures.

I like a lot of those words. But I’ve no idea (really; really no idea, at all) what anyone else thinks they might mean. (I’m guessing it’s not what I think they mean! ;-)


Authoring Interactive Diagrams and Explorable Explanations

One of the things that the OU has always tended to do well is create clear – and compelling – diagrams and animations to help explain often complex topics. These include interactive diagrams that allow a learner to engage with the diagram and explore it interactively.

At a time when the OU is looking to reduce costs across the board, finding more cost effective ways of supporting the production, maintenance, presentation and updating of our courses, along with the components contained within them, is ever more pressing.

As a have-a-go technology optimist, I’m generally curious as to how technology may help us come up with, as well as produce, such activities.

I’m a firm believer in using play as a tool for self-directed discovery and learning, and practise as a way of identifying or developing, erm, new practise, and I’m also aware that new technology and tools themselves can sometimes require a personal time investment before you start to get productive with them. However, for many, if you don’t get to play often, knowing how to install or start using a new piece of software, let alone how to start playing with once you are in, can be a blocker. And that’s if you’ve got – or make – the time to explore new tools in the first place.

Changing a workflow is also not just down to one person changing their own practise – it can heavily depend on immediate downstream factors, such as what the person you hand over your work to is expecting from you in order for them to do their job.

(Upstream considerations can also make life more or less easy. For example, if you want to analyse a data set that the person before you has handed over as a table in a PDF document, you have to do work to get the data out of the document before you can analyse it.)

And that’s part of the problem: because tech can often help in several ways, but is sometimes most effective when you change the whole process; and if you stick with the old process, and just update one step of the workflow, that can often makes things worse, not better.

Sometimes, a workflow can just be bonkers. When we produced material for the FutureLearn Learn to Code MOOC, we used an authoring tool that could generate markdown content. The FutureLearn authoring environment is (I was told) a markdown environment. I was keen to explore an authoring route that would let us publish from the authoring environment to FutureLearn (in the absence of a FutureLearn API, I’d have been happy to finesse one by scraping form controls and bodging my own automation route.) As it was, we exported content from the markdown producing environment into Word, iterated through it there with the editor (introducing errors into code elements), and then someone cut and pasted the content into the FutureLearn editor, presumably restyling it as they did so. Then we had to fix the errors that were either introduced by the editing process, or made it through the editing process, by checking back against code in the original authoring environment. The pure markdown workflow was stymied because even though we could produce markdown, and FutureLearn could (presumably) accept it, the intermediate workflow was a Word based one. (The lesson from this? Innovation can be halted if you have to use legacy processes in a workflow rather than reengineering all of it.)

The OU-XML authoring route has similar quirks: authors typically author in Word, then someone has to copy, paste and retag the content in an XML authoring tool so it’s marked up correctly.

But that’s all by the by, and more than enough for the subject of another post…

Because the topic of this post is a quick round-up of some tools that support the creation – and deployment – of interactive diagrams and explorable explanations. I first came across this phrase in a 2011 post by Bret Victor – Explorable Explanations, and I’ve posted about them a couple of times (for example, Time to Revisit Tangle?).

One of the most identifiable aspects of many explorable explanations are interactive diagrams where you can explore some dynamic feature of an explanation in an interactive way. For example, exploring the effect of changing parameter values in an equation:

One of the things I’m interested in are frameworks and environments that support “direct authoring” of interactive components that could be presented to students. Ideally, the authoring environment should produce some sort of source code from which the final application can be previewed as well as published. Ideally, there should also be separation between style and “content”, allowing the same asset to be rendered in multiple ways, (this might include print as well as online static or interactive content).

Unfortunately, in many cases, direct authoring is replaced by a requirement to use some sort of “source code”. (That’s partly because building UIs that naive users can use can be really difficult, especially if those users refuse to use the UI because it’s a bit clunky. Even if the code the UI generates, which is the thing you actually want to produce, is actually quite simple and it would be much easier if authors wrote that source code directly.)

For example, I recently came across Idyll [view the code and/or read the docs], a framework for creating interactive documents. See the following couple of examples to get a feel for what it can do:

The example online editor gives an example of the markup language (markdown, with extensions) and the rendered, interactive document:

(It’d be quite interesting to see how closely this maps onto the markdown export from a Jupyter notebook that incorporates ipywidgets.)

Moving the sliders in the rendered document changes the variable values and dynamically replots the curve in the chart.

I can see Idyll becoming a component of the forthcoming OpenCreate tool, so it’ll be interesting if anyone else can – partly because it would presumably require downstream buy-in into using the interactive components Idylll bundles with.

Whilst Idyll is a live project, the next one – Apparatus –  looks to have stalled. It has good provenance, though, with one of the examples coming from Bret Victor himself.

Here’s an example of the sort of thing it can produce:

The view can also reveal the underlying configuration:

The scene is built up from a set of simple objects, or previously created objects (for example, the “Wheel with mark” This feature is important because it encourages another useful behaviour amongst new users: it encourages you to create simple building blocks that do a particular thing, and then assemble those building blocks to help you do more complex things later on.

The apparatus “manual” fits in one diagram:

The third tool – Loopy – also looks like it may be recently stalled (again, code is available and the UI is via a browser). This tool allows for the creation, through direct manipulation, of  a particular sort of “systems diagram” where influence at one node can positively or negatively influence another node:

To create a node, simply draw a circle; to connect nodes, draw a line from one node to another.

You can set the weight, positive or negative:


As well as adding and editing text, and moving or deleting items:

You can also animate the diagram, feeding in positive or negative elements from one item and seeing how those changes feed through to influence the rest of the system:

The defining setup of the diagram can be saved in a URI and then shared.

All three of these applications encourage the use to explore a particular explanation.

Apparatus and LOOPY both provide direct authoring environments that allow the user to create their own scenes through adding objects to a canvas, although Apparatus does require the user to add arithmetic or geometrical constraints to some items when they are first created. (Once a component has been created, it can just be reused in another diagram.)

Apparatus and LOOPY also carry their own editor with them, so a user could change the diagram themselves. In Idyll, you would need access to the underlying enhanced markdown.

If you know of any other browser based, open source frameworks for creating and deploying standalone, iframe/web page embeddable interactive diagrams and explorable explanations, please let me know via the comments.

PS for a range of other explorable explanations, see this awesome list of explorables.

Fragment – DIT4C – Docker Base Containers for Edu Remote Computing Labs

What’s an effective way of helping a student run a desktop application when their own computer won’t run the application, for whatever reason, locally? Virtualised software, running remotely, provides one solution. So here’s an example of a project that looks at doing just that:  DIT4C (“Data Intensive Tools for the Cloud”)a platform for hosting data analysis tools “in the cloud” using containers [repo].

Prepackaged, standalone containers are defined for a range of applications, including RStudio, Jupyter notebooks, Jupyter+R and OpenRefine

Standalone Containers With Branded Landing Page

The application containers are built on top of a base container that includes an nginx webser/proxy, a GoTTY shell and a file uploader. The individual containers then have a “homepage” that links to the particular application:

So what do we have at this point?

  • a branded landing page;
  • browser accessed shell:
  • a browser accessed file uploader:

These services are all running within a single container. I don’t know if there’s a way of linking multiple containers using docker-compose? This would require finding some way of announcing the services provided by each container, to a central nginx server which could then link to each from a single homepage. But this would mean separate terminals and file loaders into each one (though maybe the shared files could be handled as a single mounted volume shared across all the linked containers?

Once again, I’m coming round to the idea that using a single container to run multiple services, rather than several linked containers each running a single service, is simpler, even if it does go against the (ideal?) model of using containers as part of a small pieces, loosely joined architecture? I think I need to post a simple recipe (or recipes) somewhere that show different ways of running multiple services within a single container. The docker docs  – Run multiple services in a container – provide a crib in to this at the moment.

X11 Applications

Skimming the docs, I notice reference to a base X11 desktop container. Interesting… I have a PhD student looking for an easy way to host a Qt widget running application in the cloud for evaluation purposes. To this end I’ve just started looking around for X11/noVNC web client containers that would allow us to package the app in a simple container then access it from something like Digital Ocean (given there’s no internal OU docker container hosting service that I’m allowed to access (or am aware of… Maybe on the Faculty cluster?)).

So things like this show the way – a container that offers a link to a containerised “desktop” application, in this case QGIS (dit4c/dockerfile-dit4c-container-qgis); (does the background colour mean anything, I wonder? How could we make use of background colour in OU containers?):

Following the X11 Session link, we get to a desktop:

There’s an icon in the toolbar to the application we want – QGIS:

What I’m thinking now is this could be handy for running the V-REP robot simulator, and maybe Gephi…

It also makes me think that things could be simplified a little further by offering a link to QGIS, rather than X11 Application, and opening the application in full screen mode (on the virtualised desktop) on start-up. (See Distributing Virtual Machines That Include a Virtual Desktop To Students – V-REP + Jupyter Notebooks for some thoughts on how to use VMs to distribute a single pre-launched on startup desktop application to try to simplify the student experience.)

It also makes me even more concerned about the apparent lack of interest in the OU, and even awareness of, the possibilities of virtualised software offerings. For example, at a recent SIG group on (interactive) maps/mapping, brief mention was made of using QGIS, and problems arising therefrom (though I forget the context of the problems). Here we have a solution – out there for all to see and anyone to find – that demonstrates the use of QGIS in a prebuilt container. But who, internally, would think to mention that? I don’t think any of the Tech Enhanced Learning folk I’ve spoken to would even consider it, if they are even aware of it as an option?

(Of course, in testing, it might be rubbish… how much bandwidth is required for a responsive experience when creating detailed maps? See also one of my earlier related experiments: Accessing GUI Apps Via a Browser from a Container Using Guacamole, which remotely accessing the Audacity audio editor using a cloud hosted container.)

The Platform Offering

Skimming through the repos, I (mistakenly, as it happens) thought I saw a reference to resbaz (ResBaz Cloud – Containerised Research Apps as a Service). I was mistaken in thinking I had seen a reference in the code I skimmed though, but not, it seems, in the fact that there is a relationship:

And so it seems that perhaps more interestingly than the standalone containers is that DIT4C is a platform offering (architecture docs), providing authenticated access to users, file persistence (presumably?) and the ability to launch prebuilt docker images as required.

That said, looking at the Github repository commits for the project, there appears to have been little activity since March 2017 and the gitter channel appears to have gone silent at the end of 2016. In addition, the docs for getting an instance of the platform up and running are a little bit too sparse for me to follow easily… [UPDATE: it seems as if the funding did run out/get pulled:-(]

So maybe as a project, DIT4C is perhaps now “of historical interest” only, rather than being a live project we might have been able to jump on the back of to get an OU hosted remote computing lab up and running? :-( That said, the ResBaz (Research Bazaar) initiative, “worldwide festival promoting the digital literacy emerging at the center of modern research”, still seems to be around…

My Personal TEL Mission Statement

Technology Enhanced Learning  (TEL) is “a thing” in the OU at the moment. I have no idea what folk (think they) mean by it.

Here’s what I mean by it, in the form of my own, ad hoc eTEL – emerging technology enhanced learning – mission statement.

What I aspire to is:

  • explore how we might be able to use and repurpose emerging technology to support distance education;
  • use the technology we teach our students about to deliver that teaching;
  • use the technology we teach our students about to support that teaching;
  • use the technology we teach our students about to produce the courses we are teaching;
  • expose our students to emerging technologies that they can take and use in the outside world.

This obviously raises tensions, particularly where courses take two years to produce and then ideally (in the eyes of the organisation) remain unchanged for 5 years. The first step is risky, because it means trying new ways of doing things. The last step relates to my belief that universities should be helping push new ideas, technologies, techniques and processes out into society using our students as a vector.

For All The Corporatisation & “Analytics Everywhere” Hype, We Still Don’t Behave Like The Web Publisher We Are

A few weeks ago I spotted a review paper of “data wrangling” activities at the OU (Making sense of learner and learning Big Data: reviewing five years of Data Wrangling at the Open University UK). I saw it being linked to/promoted again today.

Apparently, “Data Wranglers [DWs] are a group of academics who analyse data about student learning and prepare reports with actionable recommendations based upon that data”. Also apparently, “[i]n practice” they also do “Big Data insights”. Or something. I’m not sure we have any “Big Data” do we? (Big data, meh.)

Furthermore, it seems that “Learning analytics are now increasingly taken into consideration at the OU when designing, writing and revising modules, and in the evaluation of specific teaching approaches and technologies”.

Looks around, confused…

…because something that I’ve been failing to understand for years and years and years and years is why no-one seems interested in taking the view that we are, in a lot of courses, delivering online content just like any other web publisher would, and as such we could be looking at ways of making our content “work better”, for some definition of “better”. Or even “work”.

In the learning analytics world, this possibly means building predictive models based on previous cohorts that show how students who dwelled this long on those content pages did well, while others who didn’t reveal that hidden answer of or visit that page, or who didn’t appear to visit any course pages, failed.

At this point, it’s probably worth mentioning that the OU, as a distance learning organisation, used to deliver course materials to students as print material, but increasingly we deliver material (that looks just like the print material) as HTML via a Moodle VLE. Each section of “as if” print material appears as a separate HTML page. (We also make PDFs available that students can download… It’d be interesting to know how many then print those PDF downloads out…)

It’s also worth mentioning that a lot of the teaching related activity pursued by the OU’s central academics relates to the production of course materials and assessment materials, which is to say, writing stuff, rather than delivery to students: when the course runs, it’s the moderators of online forums (which may include the occasional central academic) and the students’ personal tutors  (Associate Lecturers, in OU parlance), who are the people who actually engage with students directly.

So to a large extent, once the stuff it’s written, that’s job done. Despite a laborious editing and publishing process to get the material onto the website, errors do slip through, and when spotted (often by pathfinder/vanguard students studying course material weeks ahead of the course schedule), corrected in another lengthy process (authors don’t have edit/write permissions on the course materials, and in some cases errors may be left uncorrected in situ with students expected to pick up the errata announcements via errata notices. Just like the print days…)

So what I keep on not understanding is why we don’t have someone paying attention to the course material as web content with a view to helping us better understand the obvious (because it’s nothing f****g difficult I want to learn from the pages), as I demoed nine years ago. For example:

  • what’s the course dynamic in terms of content use (when are most students studying particular parts of the course)? – have we got the pacing about right?
  • what’s the weekly rhythm of the course (what time of day are most students accessing the content pages?) – this could help forum moderators schedule their time;
  • how much time are students spending, on average, in a particular study session, and does this vary (e.g. 1-2 hours on a weekday evening, 3-4 hours for daytime or weekday study, 45 mins over lunch periods), and so on; i.e. what user stories might we create *from the data*?
  • how much time are students spending on particular pages? Are some pages just too long, or maybe have an idea or activity that is taking a lot of time to complete – or less time that we expect? Handy to know as a content designer (which is what course authors are). For the learning analytics surveillance freaks, can they spot students who spend more or less time than average on a particular page as a “likely fail” feature that they can celebrate?
  • are those links to external resources clicked on? Ever?
  • are the “optional activities” linked to on separate pages visited? Ever? Again, the learning analytics folk may be able to wet themselves finding correlation features on those pages, but I don’t really care about that. I just want to know, in the first instance, are the pages visited. Ever. (If they are, and it’s only a fraction of students who visit those pages/follow those links, then maybe it becomes useful to track the learning analytics stuff to see if we can figure what sort of student is making use of those resources. But rather than caring about a particular student, I’m more interested in getting a better user story dialled in that I can use to help as one more focal point to motivate content production in future courses.)
  • are students using particular devices, or the same users using different sorts of devices at different times of time? With our insistence on still delivering software that needs to be installed on a traditional desktop computer, it would be useful to know if this can affect what a student might be able to study when based on device availability. And if it comes to trying to pitch particular computer requirements, it would be handy to know what the baseline is (which course webstats can provide an indicator of), and the extent to which this may vary across faculties or course levels.

Sometimes it can be comforting to see that your expectations about how the content would be used appear to be being met. Sometimes it can be revealing to find out that they’re not.

This is all basic stuff, and someone can probably have a fun time building some dashboards to report it. (Maybe there are some already, but no-one’s directed me to them despite my asking everyone I can think of.)

To reiterate on the why: I just want to be able to tell myself more informed stories about how the content appears to be being used en masse, and maybe also identifying different audience segments in the data (eg weekend studiers, weekday nighters, full-timers). Looking across courses (faculties, levels) it may be that we get different sorts of pattern / segmentation, which could be interesting from a user / user story informed content design perspective. It may well also prompt “learning analytics” discussions. (Writing this, I’ve come to realise I associate learning analytics with tracking back into individual data from “success” criteria such as assessment scores. For the content analysis, in the first instance, I’m just interested in how its generally being consumed. No individual data necessary. Once I’ve got broad usage pattern segments down, then maybe looking at performance level segments would be useful. But then, I’d rather just track the whole cohort score distribution to try and improve that.)

From looking at VLE pages, it looks as if there are Google Analytics and optimizely tracking scripts linked in the pages, although asking around I can’t find anyone who does anything with that data from the VLE pages. (Maybe the “DW”s do?) So I’m guessing the data is there?


PS One of the things I think optimizely may be used for is A/B testing by the Marketing folk on other bits of the website. Something I’ve pitched before is A/B testing on course materials (e.g. differently phrased or worked versions of the same activity).

This has generally been treated with disdain, but if it works for medical trials I don’t see why we can’t try it in education too. There is an argument here that we would need to track effect on attainment (the learning analytics thing), but I’m wary of the idea that changing a single page in several hundred could wildly affect attainment, unless it related to a particular key concept that the whole course hinged on. More realistically, if we see a page on average is taking students an hour to work through when we estimated it at 20 minutes, I’d be tempted to do A/B tests on it within a cohort. (Managing that if students chat about the topic in the common forums could represent a challenge!) The idea would be to see if we could improve the content performance more in line with expectations. As it is, the current approach would be to wait until the next presentation and give that whole cohort the new version. Which would of course be previously untested at scale. And may end up with students taking even longer to work through it.

Sharing Folders into VMs on Different Machines Using Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive etc

Ever since I joined the OU, I’ve believed in trying to deliver distance education courses in an agile and responsive way, which is to say: making stuff up for students whilst the course is in presentation.

This is generally not done (by course/module teams at least) because the aim of most course/module teams is to prepare the course so thoroughly that it can “just” be presented to students.


I personally think we should try to improve the student experience of the course as it presents if we can by being responsive and reactive to student questions and issues.

So… TM351, the data management course that uses a VM, has started again, and issues / questions are already starting to hit the forums.

One of the questions – which I’d half noted but never really thought through in previous presentations (my not iterating/improving the course experience in, or between, previous presentations)  – related to sharing Jupyter notebooks across different machines using Google Drive (equally, Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive).

The VirtualBox VM we use is fired up using the vagrant provisioner. A Vagrantfile defines various configuration settings – which ports are exposed by the VM, for example. By default, the contents of the folder in which vagrant is started up in are shared into the VM. At the same time, vagrant creates a hidden .vagrant folder that contains state relating to the instance of that VM.

The set up on a single machine is something like this:

If a student wants to work across several machines, they need to share their working course files (Jupyter notebooks, and so on) but not the VM machine state. Which is to say, they need a set up more like the following:

For students working across several machines, it thus makes sense to have all project files in one folder and a separate .vagrant settings folder on each separate machine.

Checking the vagrant docs, it seems as if this is quite manageable using the synced folder configuration settings.

The default copies the current project folder (containing the vagrantfile and from which vagrant is rum), which I’m guessing is a setting something like:

config.vm.synced_folder "./", "/vagrant"

By explicitly setting this parameter, we can decide how we want the mapping to occur. For example:

config.vm.synced_folder "/PATH/ON/HOST", "/vagrant"

allows you to to specify the folder you want to share into the VM. Note that the /PATH/ON/HOST folder needs to be created before trying to share it.

To put the new shared directory into effect, reload and reprovision the VM. For example:

vagrant reload --provision

Student notebooks located in the notebooks folder of that shared directory should now be available in the VM. Furthermore, if the shared folder is itself in a webshared folder (for example, a synced Dropbox, Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive folder) it should be available wherever that folder is synched to.

For example, on a Mac (where ~ is an alias to my home directory), I can create a directory in my dropbox folder ~/Dropbox/TM351VMshare and then map this into the VM using by adding the following line to the Vagrantfile:

config.vm.synced_folder "~/Dropbox/TM351VMshare", "/vagrant"

Note the possibility of slight confusion – the shared folder will not now be the folder from which vagrant is run (unless the folder are running from is /PATH/ON/HOST ).

Furthermore, the only thing that needs to be in the folder from which vagrant is run is the Vagrantfile and the hidden .vagrant folder that vagrant creates.

Fingers crossed this recipe works…;-)

Sharing Pre-Built VMs Via Vagrant Cloud

In passing, I noticed yesterday that Vagrant Cloud (docs) can be used to host and distribute public Vagrant base boxes. So I exported a box file from my V-REP’n’Jupyter VM:

vagrant package

uploaded it to Vagrant Cloud – ouseful/ou-robotics-test – and tweaked my Vagrantfile to use that copy as the base box: = "ouseful/ou-robotics-test"

Now I’m thinking I should probably do the same for the TM351 VM, giving the hassle it seems to take trying to get the .box file hosted for download on an OU URL…