‘The Future of Education’ WEA conference

Tweet from the day, with an image of Rebecca presenting and noting it was a 'great session'On 7 October 2021, I keynoted at the WEA conference on the Future of Education in Leeds. It was my first attendance at a physical conference for well over a year.

The WEA asked a health and safety specialist to advise on Covid precautions at the conference. His advice was ‘iin line with government advice, i.e. no particularly special precautions are needed…..  Hand sanitiser will be available, masks are optional – but encouraged, no covid “passes” would be required, and he says that temperature checks can be misleading and so doesn’t recommend we take those either.’


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German Digital Open University

Report cover image: a head made up of different shapesBack in May 2021, I talked to Professor Dr Eva Cendon, from FernUniversität in Hagen, Germany, for a report she was co-authoring on digital higher education.

The report, GDOU. German Digital Open University. Proposed forms of collaboration for digital higher education in Germany, came out in September2021 and is available as an open access PDF. It presents possible approaches for a potential collaboration between higher education institutions in the form of a German Digital Open University (GDOU).

Cendon, E., Schulte, D., Glaß, E., Mörth, A. and Beckmann, V., 2021. GDOU. German Digital Open University: Proposed forms of collaboration for digital higher education in Germany.

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Learning analytics for accessibility

Tweet about the radio show, with a link to the recording (the recording is no longer available)Together with Martyn Cooper, Paco Iniesto, and Annika Wolff, I have been exploring ways of using learning analytics to support accessibility. This builds on work we did a few years ago, and presented at LAK16, examining how historic data could be analysed to identify courses that were proving particularly problematic for students who had declared a disability.

This time, we are trying to segment the data further. UK universities are required to supply certain data about students to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), which divides disability into eight main categories.

Although these categories are still fairly wide (for example, ‘A mental health condition, such as depression, schizophrenia or anxiety disorder’), we are using them to help identify courses where the university could improve its support for students.

Martyn Cooper, who is leading this work, spoke about it on the Vanessa Feltz BBC radio show on 28 September 2021.

Transcript of interview

Vanessa: Gosh, how great to have you on the programme, especially as you’re actually occupied doing something incredibly cerebral and intellectual and taxing and you’re doing it at 4:28 in the morning. Tell everyone went to what it is you’re busy doing.

Martyn: Writing an academic paper with some colleagues. So I’m doing my bit. I promised them a draft by the end of the week, entitled ‘Learning Analytics for Inclusion’.

Vanessa: I just do not have the faintest idea what learning analytics for inclusion is. Inclusion in what way?

Martyn: About including disabled people in teaching and learning.

Vanessa: And what does analytics mean exactly? We imagine it means analysis of something or other, but what would be learning analytics for inclusion? I mean, I feel as if I do speak English reasonably well but I do not understand that title at all. What does it mean?

Martyn: Well, lots of work these days in computing is on big data. All the data about social media, or how you order your products online, like that is collected and analytics is how they interrogate that data to find trends and behaviours and things like that. We were using it to improve particularly Open University courses for disabled people.

Vanessa: Wow! I mean, obviously, it’s an incredibly worthwhile thing to be doing which must make getting up in the middle of the night to do it somewhat easier knowing you’re doing something so worthwhile. But, my question for you is why are you writing it now? Why don’t you sleep and then write it at sort of normal waking-up time of 9am after you’ve had a charming breakfast and read the daily papers and gone for a constitutional? Why are you doing it now?

Martyn: Well, I have my own disability. I’m bipolar. My mood is high at the moment so I went to bed at half past ten, I slept for three hours, and then I was wide awake and bright as a button, and you might as well put the energy to good use…

Vanessa: …in your very productive time of the day. I see that. Now, tell me about doing something like that in collaboration with others because it would seem as if you know what you’re writing would be so detailed, so personal, so you know you’re so full of your research and the findings that how would you be able to mesh it in with whatever they’re discovering and writing?

Martyn: OK, well, we use Zoom or other tools, because I’m in Southampton, two of my colleagues are in Milton Keynes and one is in Finland. We are able to share what’s on our computer screen, so if I’m looking at a big spreadsheet of the data I can screen share and point out what findings I’m getting from it and draw pretty graphs and say what I think the graphs mean. We can discuss it and then one person has to write the words – and that’s down to me because I’m the lead author on this paper. And so I said I’d do some data analysis of what we decided we’re going to look for in the data and then I will try to write the first draft so I can share it with my colleagues before the end of this week.

Vanessa: That’s an international endeavour with one of you in Finland. You used a word in a way I’ve never heard it used before as well. Everything about you is a revelation, Martyn, but the bit where you said ‘we interrogate the data’, and I’ve only ever used the word interrogate or heard it used usually under sort of slightly tortured circumstances when somebody has a bright light shining in their eyes and they’re being interrogated in order to reveal some state secret that they want to keep secret. But you say ‘interrogate the data’ that means, presumably, use the data, comb it for information that you can glean. Is that what you mean by interrogate the data?

Martyn: Exactly. The data is so big in our case. It’s ten years of courses, all Open University courses, also all subjects, all students and whether the students finish the course or whether they pass the course. If you imagine, that’s about… I think if I remember rightly it’s about 11 a half thousand points of data.

Vanessa: I might ask to hear from anyone who’s done an Open University course or degree. Shall I do that? Cos it’s so many people, isn’t it? I might well do that tomorrow. Never asked that question before but I might use it tomorrow. Martyn, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you this morning. Thank you very much indeed for making time, especially as you are so busy. I think you should at least shout out your fellow authors on the paper and anyone else you fancy you fancy naming this morning, because they can always listen on BBC Sounds at another time.

Martyn: So it’s Annika Wolff in Finland, Rebecca Ferguson in Milton Keynes, and Paco Iniesto, a Spanish guy who I think is currently in Spain but he’s usually based in Milton Keynes.

Vanessa: Now we suddenly get the picture of how academics come together without being anywhere near each other in the world at all. Very, very best wishes to Martyn, thank you very much for all you’re doing. Nice to talk to you.



Skills for Prosperity: Kenya

One of the projects I am currently working on is Skills for Prosperity Kenya (SfPK).

Project overview

More Kenyans than ever are studying at university. Since 2008 the higher education sector in the country has expanded rapidly to 74 universities. By 2018, enrolment had more than doubled to 538,820, with a 11.46% gross Enrolment ratio (UNESCO, 2020). According to the World Bank Report, Improving Higher Education Performance in Kenya (2019), this is slightly higher than the regional average of 9.3 percent but much lower than the upper-middle-income economies that Kenya aspires to emulate.

Enhancing and scaling online and distance learning as a key route to improving access to higher education is a government priority. The possibility of a National Open University of Kenya as a flagship institution for quality, inclusive and accessible online and distance learning in Kenya and across Africa formed part of the 2012  Universities Act.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic required many institutions to shift their teaching to remote or distance modes, accelerating the use of online and distance learning, and increasing the importance of improving the quality of online learning provision across the country.

Through the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office funded Skills for Prosperity Kenya programme, The Open University is working with the Government of Kenya , key stakeholders and all 37 public universities, to support improvements in the quality, relevance, equity and cost effectiveness of higher education (HE) in Kenya. A meeting with the Principal Secretary for Education highlighted this as priority work. 

As part of this work, 32 thought leaders from Kenyan universities studied the Open University postgraduate microcredential Online Teaching: Creating Courses for Online Learners. The course ended on 20 September, and these thought leaders will go on to support colleagues developing their online and distance learning skills via a related course hosted on OpenLearn Create.


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Designing for responsible learning analytics

Tweet from organiser Olga Viberg about the workshop: 'A great start of our workshop on Design for Responsible Learning Ananalytics: a user-centred approach.ECTEL 2010, also known as Sixteenth European Conference on Technology Enhanced Learning: Technology-Enhanced Learning for a Free, Safe, and Sustainable World took place nominally in Bozen-Bolzano, Italy, but actually online from  ]20-24 September 2021.

The first two days were devoted to pre-conference events, and we ran Designing for Responsible LA, a workshop closely related to the one we ran on responsible learning analytics at LAK21.

The other organisers were Olga Viberg (Royal institute of technology, Sweden), Teresa Cerratto Pargman and Cormac McGrath (Stockholm University, Sweden), Kirsty Kitto and Simon Knight (University of Technology Sydney, Australia, Brabara Wasson (Centre of the Science of Learning and Technology – SLATE – University of Bergen, Norway).

Neil Selwyn gave an introductory keynote, reflecting on the strengths and limitations of fiction-focused methods when it comes to anticipating possible ‘learning analytics futures’. He considered what the design sciences and HCI might take from the recent adoption of story-telling, scenario-building and other speculative methods within the social sciences.

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Editor-in-chief: JLA

In early September, I was proud to be selected as one of the editors in Chief of the Journal of Learning Analytics. I join Simon Knight and Xavier Ochoa in that role, replacing Alyssa Wise.

As a long-time member of the Society for Learning Analytics Research (SoLAR), I am proud of the journal. It publishes good-quality, peer-reviewed research, well aligned with the needs and interests of the learning analytics community. This research is openly accessible, without charge to authors, which is a rare thing in a high-quality journal, and papers are available under a Creative Commons licence. Importantly, both the editors and the society reflect on what the journal is doing well and what it could do better, so it frequently innovates and develops its practice to support the community.

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The Pathway to Lifelong Education

I met with Mark Morrin from ResPublica, who was contributing towards a report for the Lifelong Education Commission, chaired by Chris Skidmore MP. We discussed microcredentials, what they have to offer, and the barriers in the way of implementing them. An initial report was published by the commission in October 2021: The Pathway to Lifelong Education: Reforming the UK’s Skills System.

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Professor interview

A news story about my promotion to professor on The Open University’s IET website, included a video interview with me.

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FLAN: Monash University

On 24 August, the FutureLearn Academic Network was hosted in Australia for the second time, this time by Monash University. The time difference made it difficult for people in Europe to attend synchronously but the event was videoed, meaning that members could enjoy the talks after the live event had concluded.

First Session

15:00 Introduction and Welcome to FLAN and the Centre for Learning Analytics Monash, Dragan Gašević, Guanliang Chen & Mladen Raković, Monash University

15:05 Opening keynote: Feedback for online learners, Yi-Shan Tsai / Monash University

15:30 Keynote Q&A

15:45 Presentation 1: Mindfulness is associated with lower stress and higher work engagement in a large sample of MOOC participants, Craig Hassed / Monash University, Centre for Consciousness and Contemplative Studies

15:55 Presentation 1 Q&A

16:00 Breakout Activity

Break 16:15 – 16:30

Second Session

16:30 Presentation 2: Learner revisitation of the same MOOC: formative feedback and its impact, Rowan Peter / Monash University

16:40 Presentation 2 Q&A

16:45 Breakout Activity

17:00 Closing keynote: MOOCs and Micro-credentials: Exploring Data Deserts, Mark Brown, Dublin City University

17:30 Keynote Q&A

17:45 Closing remarks

18:00 End of Meeting

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Playful Learning 2021

One of my favourite conferences of the year is Playful Learning. Sadly, this year it once again had to be online (11-16 July 2021), but the organisers were not daunted. We played games, dressed up, took part in quizzes, and collaborated on ideas for teaching and research, including the Encycloplaydeia of Playful Learning and the FailBetter Padlet. I wasn’t able to join in all week, but I did amass enough conference points to reach the rank of chinchilla. Next year I hope to go one better and reach the top rank of Badger.

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