The Quality Challenge: An Inconvenient Truth About e-Learning

The Centre for Learning Innovation and Professional Practice at Aston University  is happy to invite you to a  free morning  talk on  quality and technology enhanced learning. The presenter, Professor Mark Brown, is Director of the National Centre for Teaching and Learning at Massey University in New Zealand. He is also the Director of the Distance Education and Learning Futures Alliance (DELFA) which has a mission of building an international network of leaders at the forefront of new innovations in teaching and learning in higher education. Mark has responsibility for strategic oversight of Massey University’s Distance Education portfolio which includes around 17, 000 distance learners. Massey is dual mode university with over 50 years’ experience as a major distance education provider with three campuses and approximately 34,000 students.

This presentation argues that new educational technologies can help to create a vibrant digital learning ecology, but they can also be used to entrench 1950s style teaching on 21st networks. The reality is that many technology-enhanced learning initiatives reinforce traditional forms of pedagogy and educational outcomes. In many cases e-learning is nothing more than an expensive ‘add on’ to conventional models of teaching. In a similar vein the concept of blended learning does little to disrupt the old normal and is infused by a hegemonic discourse of education in change. Arguably, the fundamental elements of teaching have remained largely intact despite dramatic changes in other service industries. The inconvenient truth is that the additive or ‘dump, dump, pump’ model of e-learning is the norm.

This critical perspective raises the question of what to do about the quality challenge. While the concept of quality is inherently contestable and context and discipline bound, the position is taken that institutions have a choice of whether to focus on quality assurance or quality enhancement. The presentation explores different approaches and strategies designed to build a quality culture rather than one of compliance. A number of quality enhancement tools and frameworks are described to support this mission and the experience of Massey University is described as a case study of how to build distributed leadership and responsibility for quality within the academic heartland. Finally the presentation reflects on the changing face of higher education and the challenges confronting higher education in uncertain times.

When: Friday 19 April 2013 from 10.30 to 12.00 ( time of presentation  is about 45 minutes followed by open floor discussion over coffee and tea).

Where: Aston University, Room MB186

This event is free of charge but registration is needed for catering purposes. Please e-mail Zara Kendrick  to book  a place. As we only have 30 places available for this talk, priority will be given to people registered by Friday 5 April 2013.  The session will be recorded and will become available  on CLIPP’s Blog as well as on the Global Dimensions in Higher Education Website.

We look forward to welcoming you at Aston for this event.

MOOCs just keep getting bigger!


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Hype or hope? You decide.

I thought it was time to catch up on the current headline grabbing subject of MOOCs ; following my own recent MOOC experiences and a few inspirational talks here at Aston. On Monday 28 January 2013 Professor Curtis Bonk visited Aston University and delivered a brain melting talk on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). His presentation was recorded and is available in 4 chunks on the Global Dimensions in HE website 

Professor Bonk galloped through the recent history of MOOCs, models, and (learning) theories – which was both fascinating and overwhelming! The MOOC is definitely here to stay in a multiplicity of variants and pedagogic models, and all look somewhat disruptive (if you believe the hype), and some are even innovative! I still think the primary reason for most is still a “shop front” or large data collection for learning research. Some are offering innovative modes of delivery and learner engagement; i.e. the recent E-learning and Digital Cultures  course offered some interesting and engaging activities – including a final peer assessment on created digital artefacts. Whereas the Coursera course: Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application was forced to close after only a few days. I was enrolled and attended (in parts) both the above, so it was interesting to see two completely different models of MOOC courses, and experience (chaotic) social learning using two vastly different (interactive) models. It was somewhat ironic to witness the Fundamentals course fold/fail , but I’m sure they are redesigning the course for version 2 – as we speak. Let’s not forget how Daphne Koller promotes the Coursera model of altruism / openness, but then talks about the usefulness of the (learning) data they’ve gathered! This keynote by Gardner Campbell at the Open Education Conference 2012, should bring us all back down to earth, as should this recording of a debate on the subject at the ASCILITE 2012 conference?

Professor Bonk also mentioned the new Google learning platform called coursebuilder but advised that it required some coding skills to use it. On that note, I was talking to David Kernohan from JISC, at the JISC CETIS conference this week about the other types of MOOC platforms being developed; his research had uncovered most were bespoke coded products, and some were using WordPress or the Pearsons platform.
In other recent news; two of the big players in the field announce significant increases in partnerships, whilst 5 US MOOCs have been recommended for credits. In the UK, Sir Michael Barber, chief education adviser for Pearson, says online learning (not necessarily MOOCs) offers “both a threat and opportunity” for UK universities. At the Online and Open-access Learning in Higher Education event , Professor’s Josie Taylor (OU) and Diana Laurillard (London Knowledge Lab ) criticized the ethics, motives, and pedagogic models of most MOOCs (i.e. does completion = success? What are the values for those who drop out?), which are all founded concerns. Although; we don’t hear much complaining from the “students” of these courses about multi-choice assessments wrapped around (good quality) talking heads type video production! Do we?

At this week’s CETIS conference I attended presentations by Simon Buckingham Shum  (OU analytics guru), and Professor Patrick McAndrew  (OU Professor of Open Education) both talked about the creation of the FutureLearn MOOC project. Simon talked at length about [research & marketing] data, and what types of data will/could be harvested from FuutreLearn, whilst Professor McAndrew talked about the Open learning movement and the design ethos behind the new venture. Their MOOCy “good intentions” are thus:
• Build on what we know
• Innovate
• Be accessible
• Be interactive
• Make use of data
• Use the right licence
• Be prepared to re-use
• Not be in it [just] for the money
• Be happy
If you want to know more on how to design a MOOC, dip into the (OU driven) OLDS MOOC archives for the received wisdom from those that have just completed this course. I’ll finish off this update posting with a link to the new CETIS white paper on the subject : MOOCs and Open Education: Implications for Higher Education which helps clarifies the current state of play. Just try not to mention the word disruption too much, will you.

Durham BB & MOOCs

This post covers the two keynotes I attended at the recent Blackboard users group in Durham. They covered networked learning and the pros and cons of Massively Online Open Courses (MOOCs).

What is a MOOC? George Siemens explains, in the context of the original Connectivism MOOC

Two keynotes this year covered the highly topical subject of MOOCs. Professor Allison Littlejohn from Glasgow Caledonian University covered three primary paradigms   for the increased need for collective learning by citing her own research papers. She then recounted results of her research into knowledge based networks by Shell Oil employees during 2004. This research illustrated the effect of professionals using networks to demonstrate how the single person builds upon their knowledge and contributes to the mass of knowledge via networked connections. Her presentation illustrated the moves towards collaborative learning and knowledge building using [social] networks. She also covered research into the motivational drivers for students to learn using structured xMOOCs, i,e Coursera courses and unstructured cMOOCs i.e. phonar. That research covered the understanding of learning and learner defined pathways within HE. Her recent research covers the use of shared goals as a learning approach, and her (Open Source) Charting tool – which uses learning goals as a social object. She also mentioned that they had also implemented some research on learners who had engaged in a MOOC during 2011. Finally she mentioned an impact study on the UKOER programme on behalf of HEFCE. This looked at various areas of impact. Promising results of witnessing more use of openness in all aspects of education, therefore indicating [some] change in academic attitudes to openness. A slight shift in (open) ideals of working and sharing.

Jeremy Knox of Edinburgh University covered the MOOC Pedagogy, developing for Coursera in his keynote on day 2. He gave a much more detailed account of the current state of play for the cMOOCs Vs xMOOCs modes of design and engagement, i.e. George Siemens Connectivism MOOC  Vs the more high profile Coursera/Udacity/edX/KhanAcademy type designs. In summary xMOOC type courses are designed more towards automation, whereas cMOOCs offer far more learner defined pathway – with the knowledge of the network being the focus – not a suite of learning objects. The xMooc type is how they were instructed to design their new Coursera course (beginning next Monday 28th) – which unsurprisingly took much longer (and cost more) than they anticipated! If you think about it, xMOOCs mimic established distance learning design without the close facilitation of the learners or the validation! Most Coursera courses consist of chunks of head and shoulder video lectures with self checking quizzes to follow. The grading is automated (que howls of unfair play across the MOOC community) with supposed communities of practice forming spontaneously.  I attended part of a Coursera course last year, and was impressed at the quality, and depth of subject covered – but you need to be 100% motivated to cover the sessions in full! Certificates of completion are issued rather than credit, but…. edX are developing credits for theirs! This summary of funding models also proved to be useful to remind us how they’ve got off the ground; Udacity = for profit, edX = not for profit, Coursera = venture capital funded for profit and a dedicated platform.

Jeremy stated that their Coursera course (‘E-Learning and Digital Cultures) is being viewed as a complement to on campus learning – not a disruptive area. It is being blended with their distance MSC . He will researching how their fee paying masters students will engage with the course alongside people like me who are dipping in to keep our knowledge fresh – for free!

He finished off with stating that both open (MOOCs) and closed (degrees) learning experiences can coexist happily together – it just relies on the institution to carefully pitch it alongside their traditional offerings. He stressed, that it’s not a question of MOOCs or not for HEI’s, its a matter of getting the blend right with traditional offerings. Just like distance learning then? His talk also echoed aspects of Alison Littlejohn’s theories of the importance to understand self directed learning in HE and the motivational forces and facilitative aspects of [guided] learning. So the stampede to join the MOOC bandwagon is just beginning – keep your eyes on OU FutureLearn, and book onto the session next Monday where Professor Curtis Bonk is talking at Aston on his very subject.

Durham BB users conference

This is the first of two blog posts covering the recent Durham Blackboard
users Conference

This post will concentrate on the presentation on day two of the conference
by Greg Ritter, Director of Product Management with Blackboard Learn. He
covered the details for Bb service pack releases, their current support
websites, and future plans. I’m also going to comment upon a panel
presentation covering recent experiences of Bb mobile.

Firstly I’ll cover the Bb plans, drivers,new products and  enhanced support services. Then I’ll highlight the new features in service packs 10,11, and 12.

Greg was keen to underpin his presentation with their primary drivers, which
have are summarised into four major challenges driving product development. They are: recruitment, instructor efficiency, student engagement & retention, data
driven decision making. He also commented upon their new automated testing on
Bb platform. What took 3-4 days now is is done overnight. A mixture of auto
and manual testing.

So the new products (i.e, Blackboard Connect text 2), and a wealth of new
inbuilt and optional analysitcs tools really highlighted the increasing
importance of accurate data driven decisions across modern educational
organisations. I’ll cover some of these later in the post. One of the main
conference sponsors offers analytic solutions for
educators to measure VLE impact/ ROI / engagement! Let’s not forget Bb’s own
analytics tool  that offers the ability to extract a wealth of data for various stakeholders.

Greg was also keen to highlight the new and improved websites offering
specific guidance to users, including new upgrade cohorts, the improved help
 , etc. The list:

Getting Mobile

I watched a very useful panel discussion by five institutions (HE & FE) who all launched Bb mobile last year. They either bought the product, or just enabled the option on Bb to allow students to access Bb via native apps. The common themes were; soft launch, and unfounded concern about staff and students inability to cope! All five panel members remarked that the process had been far less painful than envisaged, and all had experienced far less support calls that expected. Mobile access continues to increase across all institutions, a positive result! There was only one institution (Liverpool John Moore’s) to provide staff training/support and regular forums exchanging ideas. The rest just quietly launched it! The Blackboard mobile users group met at the conference. This blog post by Sharon Flynn  of NUI Galway is worth reading to find out about future mobile plans – including a new native app this summer.

Let’s Xplor!

Perhaps the most interesting new product was announced off the back of Greg’s
comments about their MooodleRooms  acquisition last year, and their
Sakai support. So it seems Bb are strategically aligning themselves
as a multiple VLE support company now. Therefore the Xplor (in beta) tool
has been created to enable cross platform creation and sharing of learning objects/resources using OER and Creative Commons licensed resources. Resources can be embedded  into all supported VLEs. You can also create and manage content from xplor,
including links,assignments, assessments, and discussions. Fewer question
types available than BB Learn. This is an interesting move for Bb – embracing
cloud based content creation and sharing. It could provide a viable
application to allow staff to “easily” create and share learning resources.
Service packs 10,11,12

To finish off let’s have a look at the highlights out now, or soon to be

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Taking Leadership in Mystery of MOOCs and the Mass Movement toward Open Education

CLIPP is happy to invite you to a seminar on  Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The presenter, Professor Curtis Bonk is Professor of Instructional Systems Technology in the School of Education at Indiana University.  Professor Bonk firmly believes in distance and blened learning since he is a product of it. Curt is a popular conference speaker with several books in the area of emerging technologies for learning. The seminar will be taking place at Aston University, Birmingham in G11 the Byng Kendrick Theatre on Monday 28th January 2013 from 10:30-12:30. Please book your place by contacting Zara Kendrick.

Open education was often laughed at or ignored until the emergence of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) with their tens–or even hundreds–of thousands of learners in a single course. Given the mass success of Stanford courses topping 100,000 each and startups like Udacity and Coursera as well as the announcement of edX (from Harvard and MIT), we can no longer look the other way. Still, many questions about MOOCs and other forms of open education remain, such as those related to infrastructure, marketing, pedagogy, and assessment, to name a few. Just how does an instructor or trainer keep thousands of students motivated and involved in such a course? And what are the more promising business models? In this talk, Bonk will detail his experiences in teaching a MOOC and offer guidelines for others hoping to create a highly engaging MOOC-based learning environment. A set of 10 key leadership steps and another set of 10 pedagogical principles will be outlined with examples. He will also map out a set of business plans and more than a dozen types of MOOCs. In the end, MOOCs and mass movement to open education will no longer be such mystery.

Three Overview Points:
1. Much experimentation with MOOCs and open education today; dozens of possible business models (advertisements, fees for completion certificates, pay as you go, company sponsored courses, assessment fees, etc.).
2. Will the certificates that students earn while taking MOOCs make traditional college degrees obsolete?
3. What steps might a company, government agency, or university take to be a leader in this movement toward MOOCs and open education?


Active MOOC

I’ve been dipping into the Blackboard MOOC  called Designing an Exemplary Course. I have found it to be quite useful picking up instructional design nuances from previous exemplary course winners . The weekly course structure is run via BB own CourseSites platform and makes use of a blog plus weekly webinars showcasing  online or blended courses.

The supporting blog also reinforces the learning theory; active (and social) learning  which is proving to be a key scaffolding concept . I’m currently designing a new staff development course promoting active learning by exploiting experiential methods using the tools (discussions, wiki, blog, journal) in a student context. The top ten methods summarised in the active instructor post resonated with my own approaches , i.e. exploiting adult learning theories; real world projects, collaborative work, peer learning using a variety of media. I’m also including opportunities for reflective thinking throughout, and group presentations in the final week.

There are also links to another Blackboard blog, discussing active learners in relation to 21st Century teaching, including the very outdated reference to “digital natives” in the form of a particularly cheesy video.

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The visitor & resident metaphor developed by David White  is a more accurate portrayal of the continuum we all reside on in relation to the use of technology. Make sure you follow the link to the peer reviewed journal to read his critique of Prensky’s digital native/immigrant paper. As we all know, the concept of digital native is an overhyped myth, which is currently being investigated by the JISC funded digital literacies programme. They say..

By digital literacy we mean those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society: for example, the skills to use digital tools to undertake academic research, writing and critical thinking; as part of personal development planning; and as a way of showcasing achievements”.
The Study of how UK FE and HE institutions are supporting effective learners in a digital age (SLiDA) is well worth reading.

Obviously I’m currently focussed with developing the digital literacies of our staff in relation to the exploitation of the tools we have here, which in turn should cascade down to our students learning experiences. I’m finding the use of small developmental steps beneficial – taking inspiration from the 3E Framework developed by Dr Keith Smyth.



New year – new tools


Welcome to the new academic year at Aston. We’ve been busy upgrading some of the core learning tools during the summer. Before I talk about new tools, I thought it’s worth shouting about a new collaborative learning space (MB512) – see image above. This space has been designed and installed to showcase the ideas and feedback from recent consultations coordinated by Steve Ellis. It looks and feels great, and has been designed to ensure the space is flexible and can cater for collaborative (small group) working.  The design, colours, and embedded technology all make for an innovative space.

For those just getting back into the swing of things here’s a few pointers to keep you updated;



Blackboard VLE has been migrated to a managed hosted service, and is now updated to service pack 8. The transition has been slick and painless, and thus ensures a robust service for all our users. Two new tools of note in this release are:
New grading rubrics
New reports (tracking) types




As you may be aware, Blackboard purchased Elluminate and Horizon Wimba last year. The resultant development was Collaborate, which we upgraded to this summer. Apart from the improved interface , upgrades include:
• Echo cancellation, which eliminate feedback noise, meaning you no longer need to use headphones with PC speakers.
• Improved scheduling via the Blackboard integration.
• (vastly) Improved application sharing. Meaning you can share your desktop/live applications with session attendees, to illustrate an idea, walk through a solution, or collaborate in real time.

Collaborate is fully integrated into your Blackboard Courses.  Access it via the Tools menu.

We have also upgraded Turnitin’s integration with Blackboard. This new integration should eliminate some operational issues reported last year. The new (direct) integration fundamentally alters the way BB VLE links to Turnitin. This has resulted in a change to the submissions inbox, removing the ability to sort by student name, and no paper ID column! Students still get a full time and date stamped receipt. The main difference in the assignment set up, is the new multi part assignment. This can now cater up to  5 parts to a new assignment,  each with their own due dates – which could be useful for large/iterative or group projects.






Skype has been installed on all the Pool rooms PC’s, and uses the handheld/tie microphones. So if you are planning to invite a guest speaker from afar, they could be “present” in your lecture via Skype.

Book onto our staff development sessions to learn more about the above tools.

Turnitin updates

Metal Slug by Demonsub - distributed by CC

I recently attended the International Turnitin User Group meeting on Monday 16th July at the Sage in Gateshead (see picture). This was held just before the start of the 5th International Plagiarism Conference, so there was a healthy attendance. This was quite a unique event, in which the whole iParadigms management team were present, to answer a whole raft of questions posed prior to, and during the session.
Given the recent UK outages, the Q&A sessions were quite civilised, with some very useful questions being posed about the direction of the company and its suite of products.  On that note, Lucy Cave a Phd researcher here at Aston – gave a presentation on her latest findings. Lucy’s presentation was reported in their local paper, which covered student’s attitudes/understanding towards plagiarism and collusion. This raises further questions about student use and support of the WriteCheck tool.

Dr Christian Storm, Chief Technology Officer and last remaining founder of Turnitin covered their current research projects. These include;

  •  Improving the audio feedback length of time (from the current 3 minutes), and the ability to embed the audio feedback into a pdf download,
  • Continual refinement of their algorithms to ensure fewer noisy matches and false positives, as a result of the growing paper database of papers and indexed internet matches,
  • Tackling translated paraphrasing as a form of plagiarism,
  • Support for right to left languages (e.g. Arabic),
  • Advanced phrase exclusion, so that particular phrases or “boilerplate” text  can be excluded from reports by assignment or all assignments.
  • Stylometrics, which can identify changes in writing style, which will help address the problem of identifying students employing ghost writers. This was mentioned in relation to the new e-rater tool which is still in the testing phase, and requires further refinement,
  • New “role types are to be developed, i.e. reviewers and viewers.
  • And finally he mentioned developments into extracting text from “scanned” pdf files using new OCR methods.

In my view, the statement that had the most impact by Dr Storm was his reinforcement that the underlying purpose of Turnitin is as a teaching and learning tool, used to improve student academic writing skills. NOT just as a “checking” tool. This was reassuring to hear from a founder member – and underpins my ethos of this tool.

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new tools

Thought it was time to share a few developments.  Here’s some short snippets for your consumption;

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  • Use, and then feedback into the London Knowledge Lab’s updated Learning Design Support Environment. See the video above.
  • JISC have produced an update guide on using Blackboard Collaborate.
  • Blackboard Inc. have announced the launch of a Beta program for an interactive mobile application for Blackboard Collaborate(TM),  The new app would let learners participate in live Web conferencing sessions from smartphone and tablet devices, significantly expanding access to sessions delivered through the platform.  We are upgrading from Elluminate to Collaborate during July 2012.
  • You can now add short audio feedback clips onto student scripts using Turnitin.
  • Blackboard has updated its mobile app to accommodate test taking and to deliver alerts to students when changes happen to their courses without the learning management system (LMS) app being opened. Aston does not use BB mobile app’.
  • Stay on top of Turnitin system up time by following their status tweets.
  • Access our new PeerMark tutorial – courtesy of Cardiff learning support.
  • Need to extend Blackboard functionality /any VLE easily – then use the IMS LTI standard! Read a recent interoperability paper written by Stephen Vickers.

We see data

Approximately a year ago we contributed a suite of learning resources into Jorum for HE consumption. They were tagged with AUOER .  The video below depicts the contributions tagged UKOER into Jorum by everyone involved in that funded project. Stunning data visuals by Martin (Mashe) Hawksey.


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