Challenges and opportunities of innovation

Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 12.07.50European Distance Learning Week kicked off today with a panel on the challenges and opportunities of innovation. The week is organised by the European Distance and E-learning Network (EDEN) in collaboration with the United States Distance Learning Association.

You can watch the panel here.

As one of the panelists, I talked about our work on the Innovating Pedagogy reports, identifying ten pedagogies each year that have the potential to change practice. This year’s report goes to the printers at the end of this week, and will be out on 7 December.

Event description

“At first glance, the speed of developments in Europe is overwhelming. Pre-existing conditions created in education established immense possibilities for innovations on the continent. Very complex and concise solutions are already in place. If we think about Open Education, we have a variety of forms on offer (MOOCs, OER, open online learning, virtual mobility, remote experiments and science education, to name a few), as well as regulations facilitating collaboration of education providers on all levels of education (Bologna process, credit transfer, prior and non-formal learning recognition).

“ET2020 open coordination groups already proved their important role in fostering developments in member states. The working group on Digital Skills and Competences addressed transversal issues and collaboration on innovation development and implementation through all levels of education. New instruments and tools were established to agree upon digitally competent organizations; citizens, teachers and learners can suggest new training schemes and certification possibilities, as well as recognition of digitally skilled employees in companies.

“The opening panel of EDLW addresses these speedy developments, unbundling solutions, micro, mezo, and macro level discussions and the complexity of Europe.”

Moderator: Airina Volungevičienė, EDEN President

Panel members:

  • Sumathi Subramaniam, European Commission, DG Education, Youth, Sport and Culture, Innovation and EIT
  • Brikena Xhomaqi, Director – Lifelong Learning Platform
  • Rebecca Ferguson, Senior Lecturer, Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University
  • Sharon Goldstein, Berkeley College Online
  • Marci Powell, USDLA
  • Timothy Read, Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor of Methodology & Technology, National Distance Education University (UNED), Spain
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Edinburgh degree ceremony

Duygu in her doctoral robeThis weekend, I travelled up to Edinburgh to see one of my PhD students, Duygu Bektik, receive her doctorate in the Usher Hall.

As always, the ceremony was a very emotional occasion. Several people told me they were near tears while watching the opening video, which showed some student journeys to graduation, and the subsequent stirring organ music. I missed that – as an academic I was standing in a robe in a corridor, waiting to process in – but the entire event was very inspiring.

The ceremony was one of two OU degree ceremonies to be held in Edinburgh that day, while another took place in Birmingham. The OU is such a big institution that degree ceremonies are held from March to November, from Edinburgh to Torquay, and from Dublin to Ely. In our case, the graduates filled half the stalls of the massive Usher Hall, while their family and friends filled the rest of the stalls and the theatre circle.

For everyone concerned, this is a very big occasion. It is the culmination of many years of part-time study, typically alongside work, or family responsibilities, or caring responsibilities, or sometimes all three. Some have also been dealing with serious illness or disability. Many had their families out in force, cheering and whistling at their success. One young boy was waving encouragement to his mum from the aisle.

Some students walked or wheeled on steadily, others waved or bowed or danced or dabbed. One did a Morecambe and Wise ‘Bring Me Sunshine’ dance. Many were dressed in their best clothes, one was in evening dress and another in full-on Scottish punk. This being Edinburgh, several of the men were in their kilts, and the ceremony ended with a rousing rendition of ‘Scotland the Brave’ by a piper.

Amongst the robed university staff on stage were not only me, as Duygu’s supervisor, but also her husband, who works at the university. She was one of just two students receiving their doctorate that morning, and was the first to walk up and claim her new status. Once that was done, she joined us on stage, as a new member of the Open University academic community. Well done, Duygu – a great achievement.

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PhD examining: open learner models

University of Birmingham railway stationOn 26 October, I was at the University of Birmingham for the viva of Matthew Johnson. His focus was on ‘The Impact of Technology on Metacognition in Computer-mediated Learning’ and, more specifically, on the use of open learner models.

For those who haven’t encountered open learner models before, they begin with a domain model. This takes a subject area and sets out which knowledge underpins other knowledge. For example, in primary-school mathematics, pupils will struggle to understand multiplication if they haven’t first understood addition, and they will struggle to understand addition if they haven’t first understood number. Multiple-choice tests can be used to assess where a learner is in terms of the domain model. The result of these tests is a learner model, which can be used to make automated decisions about which subject knowledge a student should cover next. An open learner model exposes the logic behind this model to the learner. For example, a learner might wonder why they have been give work to do on simple multiplication, and they could explore the open learner model to find out it was because they had got three specific test questions wrong. This would provide a basis for reflection on their learning and on the subject area, and could also give an opportunity to challenge the learner model.

A thesis abstract remains a work in progress until the final version is printed and agreed, but this paragraph from it gives a sense of what Matthew has been working on:

The thesis finds it is possible to measure metacognition using indirect methods that correspond to post-hoc learner accounts, and that technology does not influence metacognition for all learners. Evidence supports claims that: technology can support elements of interaction important to the regulation of cognition; significant themes of metacognition transfer to OLMs; defining a profile for those identifying as stronger self-assessors is possible; and that OLMs remain relevant in metacognition research.

Matthew was originaly supervised by Susan Bull and later by Chris Baber.

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Nordic LASI

Tweet from Nordic LASII visited Bergen in Norway at the end of September to keynote at Nordic LASI. This is one of a series of learning analytics summer institutes run around the world in conjunction with the Society for Learning Analytic Research (SoLAR). The event was well attended, with participants from Russia, Norway, Denmark and Sweden.

Abstract

Learning analytics involve the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of data about learners and their contexts, in order to understand and optimise learning and the environments in which it occurs. Since emerging as a distinct field in 2011, learning analytics has grown rapidly, and institutions around the world are already developing and deploying these new tools. However, it is not enough for us to develop analytics for our educational systems as they are now – we need to take into account how teaching and learning will take place in the future. The current fast pace of change means that if, in 2007, we had begun developing learning analytics for 2017, we might not have planned specifically for learning with and through social networks (Twitter was only a year old), with smartphones (the first iPhone was released in 2007), or learning at scale (the term MOOC was coined in 2008). By thinking ahead and by consulting with experts, though, we might have come pretty close by taking into account existing work on networked learning, mobile learning and connectivism. This talk will examine ways in which learning analytics could develop in the future, highlighting issues that need to be taken into account. In particular, the learning analytics community needs to work together in order to develop a strong evidence base grounded in both research and practice.

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Centre for the Science of Learning & Technology (SLATE)

Last week, I visited the beautiful town of Bergen to visit the SLATE Centre at the university there. SLATE is a global research centre, designed for the advancement of the learning sciences. Its mission is to advance the frontiers of the science of learning and technology through integrated research. I was able to meet many of the team and talk to them about their research.

While at SLATE, I gave a talk about developing a Vision and an Action Plan for learning analytics – and for other educational innovations. SLATE is well placed to make a difference both nationally and internationally, so their vision has the potential to affect tens of thousands of learnrs in different countries.

Here is SLATE’s account of my talk.

Abstract

The promise of learning analytics is that they will enable us to understand and optimize learning and the environments in which it takes place. The intention is to develop models, algorithms, and processes that can be widely used. In order to do this, we need to help people to move from small-scale initiatives towards large-scale implementation. This is a tough challenge, because educational institutions are stable systems, resistant to change. To avoid failure and maximize success, implementation of learning analytics at scale requires careful consideration of the entire ‘TEL technology complex’. This complex includes the different groups of people involved, the educational beliefs and practices of those groups, the technologies they use, and the specific environments within which they operate. Providing reliable and trustworthy analytics is just one part of implementing analytics at scale. It is also important to develop a clear strategic vision, assess institutional culture critically, identify potential barriers to adoption, develop approaches that can overcome these, and put in place appropriate forms of support, training, and community building.

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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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