Dr Scheffel: examining Maren’s viva

Yesterday I was at the Open University of the Netherlands (OUNL), in Heerlen, as one of the viva examiners for Maren Scheffel. Maren wrote an excellent thesis, The Evaluation Framework for Learning Analytics, gave a strong defence and was awarded her doctorate.

Maren viva

As may be obvious from the picture, vivas in the Netherlands aren’t exactly the same as vivas in the UK. For one thing, the team wear gowns, caps and a shirt front that makes them look as if they have strayed from a painting on the walls of the Rijksmuseum or maybe Hogwarts. Well, not the entire team. You have to have attained professorial status to wear the extremely warm clothing. The reason I look photoshopped in is that, as a lowly doctor, I had to wear normal clothing.

Another difference is the size of the Doctoral Board. In the picture, from left to right, are Professor Delgado Kloos, Professor Griffiths, Professor Drachsler (supervisor), Professor Kalz, (newly declared) Dr Scheffel, Professor Specht (supervisor), me, Professor Brand-Gruwel, and Professor Boshuizen (chair – indicated by the chain around her neck). That’s two internal examiners and three external examiners, two from the UK and one from Spain. For a more informal take on the Board, I have linked all their official titles to their Twitter handles.

The viva takes place in public, in front of family, friends and fellow academics. It is also live-streamed as it takes place, and a recording is presented to the candidate afterwards on a USB stick. As well as the defence, the viva begins with a short presentation by the candidate on her work.

The decision is made there and then. No stringing it out for months of corrections and bureaucracy as in the UK. There is a clear point for celebration. The announcement is made, the signed certificate is formally handed over, the candidate is formally addressed as doctor for the first time, and then it is time for happiness, congratulations and a reception.

This also means that the candidate can ceremonially be sworn in. The main supervisor says:

By virtue of the powers vested in us by Dutch law, in accordance with the decision of the Doctorate Board, I confer on you, Maren Scheffel, the title of doctor and all the rights and all duties to science and society associated by Dutch law or custom to a PhD degree at the Open University of the Netherlands. Do you promise to work in accordance with the principles of academic integrity at all times, to be careful and honest, critical and transparent, independent and impartial?

I like this formal indication that the award of doctor is not just an honour – it is associated with responsibilities and with standards of behaviour.

I also like the appearance of the thesis as a formal document. It doesn’t appear as a large, unwieldy hardback tome, bound at the student’s expense, as it does in the UK. Instead, it is an attractive paperback book, available in advance of the viva. A book you would want to read, rather than a decorative item to sit on a shelf.

Of course, to be available in print before the viva, the thesis must already be done and dusted. While I like all the differences between the UK and Dutch procedure that I have mentioned above, this one seems strange. I’m used to the examiners having some influence on the thesis. The Dutch system is more akin to our PhD by publication. Most elements of it have already appeared in peer-reviewed journals, and the thesis links and supplements these in a coherent manuscript, which is checked by the supervisors. So the work of assessment is done by the peer reviewers, without their awareness, and by the supervisors. The Doctoral Board and the viva serve to validate a decision that has already been made. The examiners’ first job is to decide whether the thesis, as presented, is ready for submission. There is no option to suggest corrections or amendments – it is either ready to go or it isn’t. If it is, then the viva is largely a formality. There is a formal meeting after the defence, but the situation would have to be very extreme for the doctorate not to be granted at that point.

Another aspect that seems strange from the point of view of a UK academic, is how the defence takes place. In the UK, this takes as long as it takes. An hour, two, maybe even three. Yesterday, the time was defined in advance. The defence was to begin at 1.45pm. At 2.30pm the beadle (also in a gown) comes to the front of the room, pounds the ceremonial mace on the floor and declares ‘hora est!’ The candidate can finish a sentence at that point, but otherwise that is it, the defence is over. With five examiners, that means nine minutes of questions each, asking one each in strict rotation. That meant some of us asked two questions, some only one. When you’ve travelled for eight hours to be there, that means thinking very carefully about which single question will make the journey worthwhile.

And did I mention that the event takes place in English (except for a brief foray into Latin by the beadle)? In day-to-day life, Maren speaks German or Dutch, so she was not only demonstrating her academic prowess and  her ability to think on her feet but also her language skills.

If I were coming up with a viva system, it’s not quite how I’d do it (I would prefer to see some amendment of the thesis in the light of the examiners’ feedback), but I do feel that many aspects of the Dutch system are an improvement on our current approach in the UK.

 

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Educators’ perspectives on MOOCs

Screen Shot 2017-09-22 at 11.46.07We have just published an internal report for The Open University. It covers ‘Staff Perspectives on the Value of Involvement with FutureLearn MOOCs’. The report – authored by Tom Coughlan, Thea Herodotou, Alice Peasgood and myself  – continues our series of reports on different aspects of engagement and research with MOOCs.

We carried out interviews with educators, production staff and facilitators who work on both MOOCs and Open University courses. Analysis of these data identified six forms of value that these MOOCs offer to the university.

  1. Innovating course production
  2. Staff development
  3. Visibility and engagement
  4. Improved learning journeys
  5. Research and evaluation
  6. Income generation

In each case, the report identifies both benefits and challenges.

Open University staff can access the full report.

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Learning analytics – how not to fail

Screen Shot 2017-08-03 at 11.07.44At the LAK17 conference, a group of us held a Failathon workshop and brought its findings to the main conference as a poster. We asked conference-goers to help us to identify ways to avoid failure, and they responded enthusiastically with comments and conversation and sticky notes.

Back at The Open University, Doug Clow and I carried out a lightweight analysis of all the contributions, investigating how experts from around the world proposed to avoid failure.

We pulled the findings together into an article published in Educause Review on 31 July: Learning analytics – avoiding failure.

The article is full of suggestions, but the headline news is presented at the beginning: ‘In order not to fail, it is necessary to have a clear vision of what you want to achieve with learning analytics, a vision that closely aligns with institutional priorities. ‘

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Vital learning analytics

On 17 July, I presented at ‘Analytics in learning and teaching: the role of big data, personalized learning and the future of the teacher’.

This event was held at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) in Preson, and was organised by the VITAL project (Visualisation tools and analytics to monitor language learning and teaching).

My talk was on ‘Learning analytics: planning for the future’.

Abstract

What does the future hold for learning analytics? In terms of Europe’s current priorities for education and training, they will need to support relevant and high-quality knowledge, skills and competences developed throughout lifelong learning. More specifically, they should help improve the quality and efficiency of education and training, enhance creativity and innovation, and focus on learning outcomes in areas such as linguistic abilities, cultural awareness and active-citizenship. This is a challenging agenda that requires us to look beyond our immediate priorities and institutional goals. In order to address this agenda, we need to consider how our work fits into the larger picture. Drawing on the outcomes of two recent European studies, Rebecca will discuss how we can develop an action plan that will drive the development of analytics that enhance both learning and teaching.

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CALRG conference 2017

Together with Liz FitzGerald and Eileen Scanlon, I chaired the 38th annual conference of the Computers and Learning research group (CALRG), which took place at The Open University 16-18 June 2017. We enjoyed keynote presentations from Siân Bayne, Jenny Preece and Ben Shneiderman.

Full details of the conference, together with links to all the abstracts and to many of the presentations, are available on Cloudworks.

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The third day of the conference was FutureLearn Academic Network day. This annual conference event prioritises the work of doctoral students within the FLAN Network. This year, it brought together presenters from Bath, Lancaster, Purdue (USA), Sheffield, Southampton, The Open University, and Warwick.

Our discussant was Professor Rupert Wegerif, University of Cambridge.

Members of FLAN can access the video of the event.

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Leverhulme Writing Week

A sunny week in May away in the Peak District with most of the Leverhulme-funded PhD students in open world learning and many of their supervisors. Lots of writing was done, but also a lot of community building.

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LAK17: it’s a wrap

Scattered between my research presentations at LAK17 was my work as a member of the executive for the Society for Learning Analytics Research (SoLAR). The executive met daily during the conference – it is the only chance we have each year for face-to-face meetings. The LAK conferences also provide a venue for the AGM of the society and, despite the size of the room, where the AGM was held, it was standing room only for most of the meeting.

The executive also have a role to play in decisions about the conference itself, as well as acting as reviewers on the programme committee and chairs for the different sessions. Next year, at LAK18 in Vancouver, I shall be taking on a bigger role, as one of the programme chairs for the conference.

The picture shows me with half the SoLAR Executive at the post-LAK17 review meeting.

SoLAR women

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