Working at a large arts focused university and collaborating with colleagues in institutions of various types including Russell-group is giving me a broad insight into the changing character of Higher Education in the UK. A major shift we’ve all witnessed with the introduction of fees is the student-as-consumer effect. We are groping our way towards the American model, discussing the Student Experience but with institutions that are almost entirely structured to deliver curriculum. As Eric Stoller pointed out at the recent Jisc Creativity workshop we don’t have the equivalent of ‘Student Affairs’ in our institutions and anything that isn’t directly aligned with delivering the curriculum is scattered across libraries, academic support, the student union, careers/employability etc.

Job fair CC -
Job fair.   CC –

Treating education as a product is problematic and in the Digital Student Project we are always quick to point out the importance of managing and challenging student’s expectations as well as meeting them. The student-as-consumer effect is usually concerned with the education we provide being, or becoming, ‘product’ – but that’s a mistaken reading of the situation. The real product is employability and by inference the student themselves.

The sadness for me is that while there has always been an element of increasing-your-chances-of-getting-a-decent-job about Higher Education the underlying philosophy remained one of citizenship not economic viability (as discussed in this episode of the Philosophy bites podcast on the Aims of Education). This was even the case when taking so-called vocational courses – the focus was employment but the ideology was predominately educational not economic.

I worry that as a sector we have lost confidence in the value of learning as part of what it means to contribute to society and to become more engaged in the world. I’m not against employability. I can completely understand student’s motivations here and the need for institutions to take some responsibility in supporting them in finding work. My concern is that we are not cutting enough space for students to come to an understanding of themselves as learners and citizens *before* constructing themselves as ‘professionals’. Our preoccupation with the problem of curriculum-as-product has masked the larger problem of student-as-product or ‘entrepreneur’.

Unfortunately I see this being powerfully played out in digital contexts. The potential agency that the Web affords individuals is being co-opted as part of the process of student-as-product.  This became clear to me when I contributed to the design of a masters-level module called The Mediated Self at a prestigious UK university. This was an interesting co-design process with a both staff and students contributing ideas. The module was largely going to explore what it meant for the ‘self’ to be mediated on the Web and the students proposed a really strong structure complete with relevant readings and clear themes. I myself had had a fascinating time getting lost in notions of the self by reading a large chunk of Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons. My point was that you can always argue about the nature of the self but what’s interesting in a digital context is our ability to manage our ‘self’ in concurrent spaces, the digital and the physical. To me this is an inherently new situation brought about as an effect of the digital being a social space not simply ‘content’.

What struck me in our discussions was that the student’s motivation to learn this type of material was mainly to help them construct a ‘successful’ identity online. Implicit in this motivation was the notion of a hypothetical ‘super-employable professional persona’ which one could somehow work towards or enact online as a self-standing entity. There was a sense that there must be a correct way to ‘be’ online and that this module would help them to uncover this truth as if being-in-the-world was similar to successfully passing an exam. In effect, there was more motivation to mediate a professional persona than there was to develop a ‘self’. Instead of the Web being viewed as a place for ‘becoming’, for self-expression and human connection (ideas my institution really understands the value of) it was being seen as the location to present a perfect model of student-as-employable-product.

The academic staff at the design session were well aware of this and I could tell they would be gently pushing against these narrow motivations in an attempt to help the students come to a deeper understanding of the modules themes. My feeling is that most teaching staff attempt to challenge employability as the be all and end all of education but I fear that as a sector we are amplifying the student-as-product message rather than championing learning as an end in itself. The effect of this will the ‘production’ of students who are adept at modelling ’employability’ but may well lack the depth and agility to make their way in the world beyond economic success. My view is that University should be a place where we enlarge our ‘selves’ through learning. I suggest that as a sector we regain our confidence in the principle that a rich sense-of-self is the single most ‘employable’ attribute individuals can develop.

Product or Public Good?

I was delighted to be invited to speak about our Study of Online Learning our group authored for the HEFCE Task Force at this years ALT-C conference. I  focused on the issues that I felt arose from the long awaited report which is due to be published shortly.

Or view the talk in the ALT-C youTube channel

The vast majority of online distance offerings are postgraduate ‘professional’ courses. eg. Masters in Law, Medicine, Business, Engineering etc.

I made it clear in my presentation at ALT-C that I don’t see this as a problem in of itself. The institutions providing these courses have found that the online distance format works well for those in full-time employment and that these types of courses have a ready market. Setting up successful online distance programmes is challenging enough so it make sense to pick the low hanging fruit in terms of potential customers when developing new products.

Did that last sentence grate a bit? It does for me and not just because of the dubious grammar. As soon as we talk in terms of ‘customers’ and ‘product’ I get nervous. There seems to be something inherently at odds with the philosophy of higher education as I understand it when it is couched in economic terminology. This is then compounded by the apparent keenness of the government to involve private partners in the delivery of higher education programmes online with the possibility of giving some companies the right to award degrees directly.

ALT Proceedings
A fortifying cup of tea with some mini-chedders

I was at an amusing talk recently given by an American company who claimed that their “for-profit university was not preoccupied with money”. It’s very easy to sit in a university and poke fun at commercial educational providers, too easy in fact, especially as I’m quite happy to take my salary home each month. I haven’t done an MBA so I’m not an expert but I find it difficult to distinguish the financial approaches of public and private sector bodies sometimes. Universities are diverse businesses and have many money-making activities some of which are funded by the government and some which are straight commercial ventures. I believe that a simplistic argument around ‘for-profit’ and ‘not for-profit’ masks the real issue which in the case of online distance learning is to do with diversity.

Almost every institution in this field whether a university or a big corporate is providing an extremely narrow curriculum because certain courses have a better Return on Investment than others. The problem is not what we are providing online but what we are neglecting to provide. Where are the humanities and liberal arts? Where are the foundation and undergraduate degrees? There are a few examples of these (I cited The Sheffield College) but certainly not enough to reflect the character of our face-to-face universities.

The reason for this lack of diversity in both curriculum and academic levels is because non-STEM, non-Business, non-Postgrad courses have a less reliable income stream. It’s expensive to kick start an online programme. It’s a lot less expensive than building a lecture theatre or a library but because it’s a ‘new’ mode of delivery it’s assessed outside the economic machinery embedded in our institutions and has to be seen to pay-for-itself. Here is where the financial challenges bite. At ALT-C I made the statement that “Universities should enrich society not make society rich”. I admit that this becomes increasingly difficult when money is scarce but I feel that it’s important that we retain those aspects of our activity which work towards the public good. A public good which is not predicated on wealth and material growth but on wellbeing, one which equips individuals to be more than economic units.

Dave Walks
I got quite animated (Image: Creative Commons "Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales" : Mark Gregory of

This challenge is distinct from abstract notions of ‘quality’. I can’t honestly say what the standard of teaching and learning is like on the offerings our study discovered but I see no evidence that a lucrative course is destined to be a less ‘educational’ experience than one that loses money. In many cases I suspect that the quality of online learning is higher than equivalent face-to-face courses because students expect significant amounts of contact when at a distance. In face-to-face teaching scenarios the lecture (a controversial subject this year) provides a very efficient sense of contact and notional cohort cohesion. For online this cohesion has to be built by regular feedback, tutor-student contact and peer-to-peer learning. The risk of a lack of social presence in a predominantly text based medium coupled with the influence of the micro-contact culture of the web means that only the online courses with excellent learning design will survive. The mode of delivery inherently demands good pedagogy and active engagement or students simply drop out.

I think it’s helpful to consider this area in terms of identity because this forces a consideration of values beyond the economic. As it stands the ‘digital identity’ of online higher education provided by the UK largely looks like a highly academic professional development programme. I must reiterate that I’m not criticising this activity in of itself rather I am holding out hope that future funding models will allow programmes outside this area to move online and better represent the varied and excellent teaching and learning this country is rightly known for.

If you are keen to discuss the role of technology within/around higher education in a political context then you might want to consider registering your interest for the proposed ‘Tech, Power, Education’ seminar series.

Slides from the talk:

TALL win national award

It is with great pleasure and a generous slice of pride that I can announce that TALL is the 2010 team winner of the ALT Learning Technologist of the Year award.

TALL Team 2010

It is fitting recognition for our group which has built up a successful portfolio of fully online distance learning courses, in parallel with running innovative and influential R&D projects and providing consultancy services. Over the years the Association for Learning Technology annual conference has been an excellent opportunity for us to keep up to date and to share the many aspects of TALL’s work. This has ranged from running ALT workshops on our course production process through to giving presentations on World of Warcraft and Second Life. It was a real honour to receive the award at the conference gala dinner last night.

The ALT panel of judges had the following to say about us:

“The TALL team has succeeded in developing a flexible model for production of material which is efficient and effective in the Oxford environment. It now delivers in a way that reflects the Oxford tutorial model with emphasis on frequent interaction between learner and academic and on regular updating.”

It is gratifying to see the aims we set out with around five years ago so neatly reflected in the judges’ comments. TALL has been at the forefront of elearning design production and delivery since it’s formation in 1996. Another way of looking at this is that we made most of our mistakes early, learnt from them and moved on.

“The judges were impressed with the speed at which learner numbers had built up along with the range of courses and projects being delivered in a difficult market.”

The unerring support of our Department has helped TALL to create and deliver online courses in highly technical subjects such as Nanotechnology together with a suit of short courses in humanities subjects, the latter being a much neglected area in online education.

The real strength of the unit however is in its breadth of activity. Research informs production and vice-versa.

“The judges were impressed with the balance in the team between production and delivery of online material and an active and strong research and development programme.”

This is very important to me as I feel that it’ s crucial for any unit, no matter how ‘technical’ it may appear to the wider institution, to maintain the university tradition of questioning the status quo and pushing the boundaries of disciplines. The heritage of units such as TALL puts them in a challenging position which should neither be wholly technology focused nor a purely academic. I find it very rewarding bridging these cultures, ensuring that thousands of students each year from all around the globe have an opportunity to engage with Oxford courses, while pushing our thinking and practice forward.

I’m frequently impressed by our team who have worked really hard to ensure that TALL has become an important part of our Department’s activities and has put online distance learning from Oxford University on the map.

Does the Technology Matter?

Recently I have given keynotes at the Plymouth e-Learning Conference (video here .wmv format) and the  Technology Enhanced Learning Symposium at DeMontfort University (slides here), both of which explored the flow of technology from shiny innovation through to  embedded use within an institutional environment. I did this from the perspective of the individuals/groups involved rather than by describing the evolving affordances of digital platforms. This approach being an attempt to avoid the ‘what’ of technological determinism, concentrating instead on the ‘why’ of institutional/individual motivations.

A few of the things I covered included:

  • Drawing out the similarities and differences between the geeks gate keeping the BBC Micro in 1982 with the beautiful people (in expensive jeans) ‘life-styling’ the iPad in 2010.
  • Highlighting the daunting breath of activity and motivations that now come under the increasingly useless banner of ‘digital’ by contrasting the excellent Hierarchy of Digital Distractions with the contents of the 2009 GCSE in Information Communications Technology.
  • Asking the audience to reflect on their own personal motivations and positions relative to my ‘Six Very Simple Diagrams’: Role, Desire, Pedagogy, Technology, Motivation and Bickering.

Of these ‘Role’ seems to cause the most discussion:


Do you see your role as one of successfully embedding technology  until it becomes ‘transparent’ or is it more about challenging current practices using the tech as a driver for change? It could of course be a combination but my experience within the Higher Education sector is that groups coalesce around either ‘disappear’ or ‘disrupt’. This, in my opinion, is why individuals who can facilitate communication between these groups are crucial to the ongoing innovation-embedding flow within any institution.

The apparent opposition within the disappear-disrupt paradigm was brought back to mind when I was invited to take part in a ‘Does the Technology Matter?’ debate for the ALT-C conference later this year. Inspired by some slightly belligerent Tweeting around the concept by myself, @josiefraser and @mweller Dave Cormier hung the tensions embodied in the statement very elegantly on Smartboards (although he could have chosen any number of technologies) in his ‘It’s about the technology and it isn’t’ post. In the post he neatly balances the push-pull nature of the introduction of new tech into a classroom situation, highlighting what the effects of a new technology can be and what is simply foregrounded by the presence of that technology.

For me this aligns well with the disappear-disrupt concept in that your position on this continuum will underpin your reaction to the ‘Does it Matter?’ statement. This brings me to extend the question into a more useful form: ‘Does the Technology Matter for What?’ which does not have an objective answer as it is inextricably linked with ‘What do you Think you are Trying to Achieve?’ Oddly the latter question is often passed over when ‘new’ technologies are being introduced with vague allusions to ‘efficiency’ or ‘it’s what the students want’.

Again it’s the ‘what’ not the ‘why’ which tends to get focused on. As an example I would cite the ‘digital literacy’ debate in which motivations to engage frequently go unexplored leading to a focus on how to develop and maintain a successful digital identity as if this is the only way to live and learn. This in turn inevitably moves onto interminable discussions around facebook privacy options that ultimately spiral into the nature of society as a whole until lunch brings the whole thing to an inconclusive finish. Too much ‘what’ morphs into a woolly ‘why’ just as people start to get really hungry.

What I’m lobbying for here is a properly balanced conversation around ‘Does the Technology Matter’ in which we avoid simplistic posturing by making it clear what our assumptions and motivations are. In this way the discussion will help us to reflect on our own positions and how we can successfully collaborate with those around us who hold differing views but might well be trying to achive similar things. I’m not saying that I’d-like-to-teach-the-world-to-sing I just think that our underlying approach to technology is still a little 1982 and it’s time to accept that the picture is a bit more complex.

Initial reflections on the future of online learning

The first few months of 2010 were very busy for our group as we tackled (with the support of JISC) a complex and wide ranging study for the HEFCE Online Learning Task Force (OLTF). On 17 March we submitted our overview of the current provision of HE level online distance learning in the UK to the OLTF. Recently, as a result of the study and other research, HEFCE published a short paper to encourage discussion and feedback from the sector on the work of the OLTF. In the paper they highlight a number of our key findings:

  1. More should be done to provide a simple taxonomy of the wide range of student experiences that currently fall under the broad title of ‘online distance learning’.
  2. The vast majority of online distance learning offered by HEIs is focused on postgraduate-level provision.
  3. Most online distance learning can be identified as professional development, or as having a strong vocational focus.
  4. It can be challenging for potential students to find out about online distance learning courses, with information often hidden in complex institutional web-sites.
  5. Where details are available, they frequently fail to provide the full range of information that a potential student needs to make a decision about studying online.
  6. We need to improve the market intelligence available to give a clearer picture of the position of UK online distance learning in an international context.

Notably the paper also mentions that: “96% of undergraduate students use the internet as a source of information and 69% use it daily as part of their studies”. The Task Force however are not distracted by this level of uptake and set out a clear position with regards to technology:

“…It is also clear that technology platforms are not a barrier to success. The OLTF does not intend to dedicate significant attention to this area. We intend to pay more attention to business models to ensure sustainability and cost-effectiveness, and to pedagogical good practice to support academic quality.”

In my opinion this is indicative of a Post-Digital approach in which as one of the study’s interviewees put it “the technology is vital but not central”. I’m pleased to see this underpinning philosophy being taken by such an influential group (especially as Post-Digital thinking informed my two presentations to the Task Force).

As ever it is important to stress that the Post-Digital does not discount the importance of those groups and individuals employed to develop and manage technology. In fact this approach makes clear the need for ongoing innovation and an active engagement with emerging platforms/services.

“The OLTF is aware that there are a number of organisations that are already active in supporting UK HE as a world leader in online learning: for example the British Council, the Higher Education Academy and the Joint Information Systems Committee. It is keen to ensure that institutions harness such expertise…”

I hope that the ongoing work of the OLTF continues to recognise the importance of academic expertise, institutional savvy and the need to understand (and occasionally challenge) student expectations. Certainly any approach that does not imply that technology is some sort of ‘magic bullet’ for the limitless up-scaling of HE level education must be healthy. This approach also helps to manage institutions’ expectations of technology and those who are responsible for its implementation.

Our full study of online distance learning in the UK is due to be published by the OLTF in late June 2010. In the meantime take a look at the HEFCE discussion paper. Responses are due in by 14 May.

Reflections on the ‘Conference that Cares’

Attending the Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA) conference in Brighton last week was an intriguing experience for me. There was something in the atmosphere that I had trouble tuning into, something which pervaded every session but which I couldn’t pin down. Until, at the end of the first day I had sudden moment of clarity, the mysterious and all pervading dimension to this conference that was evading me was the fact that these people really care about what they do.

The first clue was an impassioned keynote from Ronald Barnett, Emeritus Professor of Higher Education at the Institute of Education. This was a presentation from someone who believed in education and had a real feeling for the emotive realities that students face, pulling out terms such as “anxiety”, “excitement” and “scary” from student quotes. In my opinion we often forget the emotional rollercoaster learning can be and how that ‘ride’ is integral to the experience not something that should be entirely ironed out.  In tension with this notion is the challenge that tertiary education continues to face under an implicit acceptance of ‘students as consumers’. This topic was not shied away from leading to a pithy debate on Twitter which included the plea: “We must kill off this idea before it kills us off”…

The importance of not allowing educational research and teaching practice to continue to diverge was a key theme which suffused the conference. This trend is to the detriment of both groups who need to learn from each other. It seemed clear to me that institutions should to do more to create roles which are less segregated, roles sit under the larger banner of ‘academic practice’ that can denote research and teaching.  The challenges inherent in making this happen was an area which I touched upon in my session entitled ‘Not Killing the Creative’. I reflected on the methods employed (some more successfully than others) in the recent JISC funded ‘Open Habitat’ project. Methods which attempted to make the overlap in the centre of the ‘educational researcher’ and ‘teaching practitioner’ Venn diagram as wide as possible.

The majority of the SEDA delegates are in professional positions which act as a bridge between the highest tiers of policy making and the teaching/research (there’s that problem again) staff within universities. These are the people who have the ability to embed new teaching and learning strategies and to influence culture change within tertiary education. It was refreshing to hear the closing thoughts in the opening keynote including the phrases ‘We need to play the game” and “We have to be subversive”. If institutional approaches are to be improved from within then a subversive playing of the game by people who care is exactly what is needed.