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FLAN at Exeter University

FutureLearn logoThe spring meeting of the FutureLearn Academic Network (FLAN) took place at the University of Exeter on 28 February. The broad topic of the meeting was on the relationship between MOOCs and other courses run by the university. As Academic Coordinator of the network, I was involved in planning the event, though I was not able to attend on the day due to industrial action. The agenda gives a flavour of the variety of work presented and the reach of the network.


10.00 Coffee and welcome

10.30-11.00 FutureLearn & the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Nigel Smith (FutureLearn Head of Content) & Christoffer Valenta (FutureLearn Legal Counsel). On 25 May the new European Union General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into force. This means FutureLearn is reviewing all its data protection and privacy policies. Nigel will explain the GDPR’s implications on partners’ research and Chris Valenta will join remotely for a Q&A.

11.00-11.20  China’s model of integrating MOOCs in the university. Zhu Yingxi, Shanghai Jiaotong University (by Skype)

11.20-11.40 Integrating MOOCs into on-campus modules. Nic Fair and Manuel Leon from the Web Science Institute, University of Southampton

11.40-12.00 How does a MOOC impact on-campus student engagement? Sarah Cornelius, Colin Calder and Peter Mtika, University of Aberdeen (by Skype)

12.00-12.20 Bristol Futures: Using open courses to provide extra curricular activities for students. David Smith and Suzanne Collins, University of Bristol

12.20-13.00 Lunch

13.00-13.45 Students as MOOC facilitators; the benefits of worldwide MOOC engagement. Damien Mansell, Sarah Dyer and student facilitators, University of Exeter. This workshop presents a unique student/staff partnership developed to facilitate the delivery and support of the Climate Change MOOCs at Exeter. The student facilitator model engages taught and research students to become co-creators of learning experiences, facilitate discussion, share stories, answer questions and monitor engagement.

13.45-14.30 Questions & Answers – how to survey learners? Reka Budai – Strategy & Insights Analyst, FutureLearn & Lisa Perez – UX Research Lead, FutureLearn. In this interactive session we will be sharing with you our survey vision – what, when and how we would like to ask from learners to get better insights and make course evaluation more efficient.

14.30-14.50 Coffee break

14.50-15.10 A blended course in Haskell Programming that includes a FutureLearn MOOC: Learner & Teacher Experiences Jeremy Singer & Vicki Dale, University of Glasgow (by Skype)

15.10-15.30 The Quality Approaches to MOOCs and the Influence of the University Culture. Ahmed Al-Imarah, University of Bath

15.30-16.00 General discussion of terms of reference, funding opportunities, next steps


16.00 Meeting ends


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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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JISC effective learning analytics

Following my visit to Korea, it was great to see Il-Hyun Jo at the 8th UK Learning Analytics event, which was organised at The Open University by JISC.


Il-Hyun talked about the problems associated with learning analytics in a country where grades are allocated in relation to a normal distribution curve – so if one student’s grades go up, another student’s grades will go do – and where competition to enter universities is so intense that retention is not viewed as a problem.


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Interviewed in Uruguay

While I was in Montevideo, at the invitation of Plan Ceibal, I was interviewed about learning analytics. This playlist of four short videos (subtitled in Spanish) deals with the potential of Big Data to improve learning, how The Open University has used learning analytics, and the work of the LACE and LAEP projects.

I talk about how analytics can be used to identify when students are dropping behind, how they can be used to identify successful routes through courses, and how they can identify types of learning design that lead to student success.

I note that the supply of learning analytics is growing, but it is not clear that the demand is growing in the same way. Researchers and developers need to engage more with educators at every stage in order to identify the problems they need to be solved and the questions that they need to have answered.

I also talk about the need to align learning analytics with strategic priorities for education and training, not only at institutional level, but also at national and international level.

My videos are followed in the playlist with videos from Professor Dragan Gasevic, chair of the Society for Learning Analytics (SoLAR).

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Twitter stream

Always good to have a presentation tweeted by your pro vice chancellor :-)
Tweet by Belinda Tynan

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Rethinking Education

I was recently invited to Stockholm, to speak at the ‘Rethinking Education‘ conference run by the Ratio Institute. The conference objective was ‘to focus on the need to design for the future education and skills systems that enable young people and adults to develop the knowledge and skills needed in the labour market, as well as for personal development and important societal goals.’

My focus was on the benefits and challenges offered by MOOCs, with particular reference to FutureLearn.

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Working with a regius professor

This is a press release released by The Open University at the end of January, concerning my colleague and line manager, Professor Eileen Scanlon.

Her Majesty the Queen has bestowed upon the OU a Regius Professorship in Open Education to mark the Diamond Jubilee.   

A Regius Professorship is a rare privilege, with only two created in the past century. It is a reflection of the exceptionally high quality of teaching and research at an institution.

The OU Regius Chair in Open Education is located in the Institute of Educational Technology and recognises the work of Professor Eileen Scanlon, who will be its first incumbent.

Eileen is an internationally recognised luminary in the field of educational technology and public understanding of science. With over 37 years of service to the OU, Professor Scanlon has driven up standards of open education across the world through intelligent use of technology, combined with impeccable pedagogic insight, and has exerted a major impact on the direction of OU research in these areas.

The Institute of Educational Technology is at the hub of the OU’s continuing research into, and development of, the latest open educational technologies for learning and teaching, enabling the University to do what it does best and deliver quality at scale. This is also a particularly fitting way of recognising Harold Wilson’s 50th anniversary of the announcement of a ‘University of the Air’.

IET is one of twelve University departments to have been awarded this prestigious award. All entries were assessed by an expert panel which included eminent academics led by Sir Graeme Davies, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of London.

This award is particularly significant for both the OU and Professor Scanlon, as only two others have been awarded a Regius Professorship in the last century, to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. Before then, the most recent Regius Professorship was created by Queen Victoria.

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