Saturday, May 25, 2013

UK higher education: let's not follow the leader but develop our own vision

OFT investigation - online shopping

The UK needs to evaluate the disruptive possibilities of MOOCs, and create its own hybrids to energise its university ecosystem, says Saint John Walker. Photograph: AP

An avalanche is coming. Education is broken. Classrooms kill creativity. Higher education is a rotten tree being hit by lightning.

All these things have been said about higher education recently (Clay Shirky wrote the last one if you're interested). In fact, when I playfully did a Google search on "higher education is doomed", it returned some 2 million results. Those who work in teaching, especially in higher education, have had a rough time of it recently. It seems everyone's got it in for them and everyone has a prognosis of what to do about it.

To paraphrase Monty Python, you'd think the university system had kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, gone to meet its maker, joined the bleeding choir invisible. But I disagree. I actually think that higher education system's vital signs are quite healthy even if I do think (to spin out the Palin-Cleese exchange a little further), it's probably been too busy pining for the fjords.

Higher education is often criticised for what it hasn't done rather than what it has.To quote the IPPR report, 'An Avalanche is Coming': "Nothing looked more impervious to revolutionary change than Brezhnev's Soviet Union in 1980, yet just over a decade later it was gone. The hegemony of the Catholic Church in Ireland looked unshakable in 1990, but two decades later it was gone". You get the subtle suggestion – higher education hasn't moved with the times, it needs glasnost and perestroika.

One of the biggest snowballs in this supposed avalanche is the MOOC (massive open online courses) phenomenon which has captured the imagination of so many observers. It's a rather simple and utopian ideal: education for all, free, delivered to your laptop, time-shifted to your schedule not the university timetable. It's also the notion of unlocking quality knowledge from elite campuses like MIT, Stanford, Harvard and UCLA that makes it such a seductive idea.

This story is also inextricably linked to the Silicon Valley meme of technology for good, and the alluring narratives of disruption and technical fixes that will create a new culture of mass learning. One of the noticeable things about this vision of the future is that it is (the launch of FutureLearn withstanding) very much an American story, and it's easy to see the reasons why.

According to the US Department of Education, student debt is now over $1 trillion, and an estimated 53.6% of degree-holders in the US are jobless or underemployed. The contract between higher education and the learner, who is willing to put up with short-term debt to get a great career, has broken down. There is a crisis of confidence.

Add to this mix the prediction that the edutech space is set to be worth $107bn (£70bn) by 2015 and you have a powerful impetus for change. It's often said when America sneezes, Europe catches a cold. Will that be the case in the higher education sphere too?

The European Union registered an unprecedented youth unemployment rate of 22.8% in September 2012, and in the UK 40% of graduates cannot find graduate-level work two years after their degrees. But student debt, despite recent changes, is nowhere near as extreme as in the US.

So, we have a different motive for our changes to education in the UK. We shouldn't just accept US-style MOOCs as a solution that also fits our national landscape. There are alternative narratives, different stories, and a more British vision of higher education that could be articulated.

We could use the language of complementing and collaborating a little more, rather than the US narratives of disruption, competition and overhaul. Let's critically evaluate the disruptive possibilities – good and bad – of MOOCs, and create our own hybrids to energise our particular university ecosystem.

Of course we too need edutech companies, entrepreneurs and educational venture capitalists. But here's my idea for a few acronyms that we Brits should create: POOCs, or Personal Open Offline Complements – real human gatherings based at scale; OAFs, or Open Access Funnels, that lead disenfranchised people from online courses to the real valuable experience of being part of a community at a physical place of learning; and how about hybrid apprenticeship and degree mixes?

There are plenty more acronyms we could create together. Let's include the most receptive and agile universities in those debates, treating them like a living breathing partner, rather than that poor old Norwegian Blue parrot with its feet nailed to its perch.

Saint John Walker is head of development at Creative Skillset, the UK skills council for the creative industries – follow it on Twitter @skillsetssc

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Online students and teachers are no different from the rest of academia

I'm online note on a keyboard

Why is teaching online still viewed with prejudice by some academics? Photograph: allOver photography/Alamy

My name is David Newton, professor of business studies. I'm an online higher education tutor. Some of you may read that last sentence as a confession, rather than a simple statement of fact. Why? In my view, it is because – despite its growing popularity and valuable role in the future of higher education – online learning is still a mystery to many in academia, and viewed with prejudice by some.

Take me, for example. People assume I'm some new breed of academic. I'm not. I am currently a tutor and programme director for undergraduate and MBA business degrees with a respected online learning provider. But my background is no different from any other university professor. I've worked in numerous UK and overseas universities, researched and published widely, and was dean of business and vice-principal at the Royal Agricultural College, where I still hold a visiting professorship in strategic management.

I'm not a radical, or anti-establishment – I've loved and respected working at every university I've joined. I just happen to have moved into a different learning delivery model because I knew it would give me greater flexibility to continue with my academic interests and spend more time with my family. It's a model that fits around my life.

That's something I share in common with my students. They aren't unusual either. They just choose to study online because the flexibility suits them. Online higher education means students can combine education with employment – often fast-tracking their careers as a result – or fit study around family commitments.

These students don't pursue online degrees as second best, nor are they students who have somehow been enticed away from traditional universities with promises of a better answer. They choose to study online because it simply works better for them. In most cases, it's also a far more affordable option than a campus-based degree – and it's clear that financial factors are increasingly driving higher education choices across the board.

So what are online students like? They're just like any other students pursuing academic objectives. The only real difference is that they tend to have more 'real world' experience. Because a lot of my students are in employment, they are much quicker to grasp theory and see how it can be put into practice. They therefore push us to reflect that in the course content; tutorials will commonly feature their real-life experiences, a benefit for all.

Tutorials are another aspect of online higher education that seems to mystify and confuse the onlooker. The popular myth is that online education means reduced contact time and poorer quality provision – whereas in fact the opposite is true.

When I was teaching on campuses, I often found students were reluctant to knock on my office door or kept quiet during a traditional face-to-face tutorial session – particularly those who were struggling with a topic. Technology, now ubiquitous in modern life, has removed those barriers.

In my current role, students are quite happy to email me and debate ideas or take part in interactive 'live chat' video tutorials. These are held very frequently – typically, I will host six tutorials per module, per quarter. Forums are another powerful tool for encouraging quality interaction – again, using familiar technology to encourage the lively exchange of ideas and independent thinking.

And what about the quality of the qualifications themselves? Surely an online degree must have different academic processes or standards? Well, no actually. Where I work, the same academic processes are in place that you would find in any UK university – and in many cases, I would argue that they even go further.

For example, we report to external exam boards four times a year via exam committees and conduct external verification of exam papers, module content, and samples of marking. We are also encouraged to assess and reassess our work continually – for example, producing continuous module reports to highlight student performance, any technical issues, and suggested improvements.

The quality of the learning we provide and the impact it has on students' lives is what has always driven me – and continues to do so. Knowing that I'm able to give people a quality academic experience, via a flexible model that makes learning possible for them, is a great motivator.

I'm not saying that online higher education is a model that will replace traditional universities. It won't and I don't think it should. The two are complementary. But it is a model that meets the needs of an ever growing group that prefers to study this way – and a vital means of ensuring UK higher education retains its share of the international market. There is no mystery about it. All the traditional elements of university learning are still there, they are simply adapted for a technological generation.

Professor David Newton is a module tutor and programme director of undergraduate business programmes for online learning provider RDI – follow it on Twitter @RDIonline

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A teacher's graduation wish: remember the value of face-to-face interaction | Kristina Chew

Graduation Day, Sheffield, Britain - 14 Jan 2010

High student debt and budget concerns have led some universities to consider online courses for their students. Photograph: Rii Schroer/Rex Features/Rex Features

I teach classics at a small, Jesuit university on a well-trafficked boulevard in Jersey City, across from lower Manhattan. With another school year ending, I'm feeling wistful to be saying goodbye to my graduating students.

But in our technological age it might be said that there are no real goodbyes anymore. I've been friended and followed by students via Facebook and Twitter, and some read my blog. They ask for recommendation letters and tell me about graduate school acceptances via text messages. As often noted, theirs is a generation for whom computers and cell phones are commonplace.

Being virtually connected is, of course, different from having face-to-face contact. The latter – conversations with friends in the wee hours of the night or with professors after class – is what I remember most from college. The internet offers plenty of resources (images of archaeological sites, famous classicists lecturing in the Roman forum) that can enrich my teaching of the ancient world – especially since my classroom is often filled with the wailing of police sirens or garbage trucks's grinding.

But I also carry around five dry erase markers so I can write (and sometimes draw, terribly) on the board. To show the students all the grammatical forms of the middle/passive voice of verbs, I climb onto a chair, because whoever installed the boards did not have five-foot tall classicists in mind.

That gets students' attention, as does telling them that scholars estimate that about a third of the population of ancient Rome were slaves, and that Roman slavery was not based on race. When teaching about citizenship and elections in ancient Athens or in the Roman republic, my students – African American, Hispanic and Asian, and many not born in the US – quickly realize that none of us would have been able to vote.

I also point out that all of us in a classroom would have simply been impossible in the ancient world, not least because I'm a third-generation Chinese-American woman, whose grandmother never learned to read or write, and who was certainly the first in her family to study ancient Greek.

I decided to learn Greek after I stumbled upon a book of Greek myths in the tiny library of my fourth-grade classroom. The stories of Perseus and Andromache, of medusa and the minotaur, and of all the oh-so-human gods, entranced me. The myths hold the same appeal for my students: any lesson on the uses of the ablative case is enlivened by discussing mythology. Students often know these stories through video games like God of War and Skyrim, which take liberties with the Greeks' versions. But seeing students so enthused reminds me that that is what matters.

Similarly, while I have much to critique about the movie 300 – its portrayal of the Persians, its use of Greek history – I have to admit, it has gotten students to study Greek and even to feel a little chill when they realize it's the dead Spartans speaking in Simonides' epitaph for those who died at Thermopylae: "O stranger, tell the Lakedaimonians that here we lie, their orders we did obey."

Very few, if any, of my students will go on to study ancient Greek or Latin, and many will very likely spend the rest of their lives, or at least their working lives, in front of a computer. That's why, as much as students have to know how to conjugate verbs and decline nouns for an exam, I not only hope they've learned something of Greek or Latin, but that they've learned the value of a real, living teacher, especially because college is becoming more and more of a virtual experience, with some universities are allowing students to take "massive open online courses" (Moocs) for credit towards earning their degrees.

Could the day come when, seeking to keep costs down and trying to combat the huge debts saddled on undergraduates, schools have students take Moocs rather offering courses taught by their own professors? 

For the past couple of decades, colleges and universities have been watching the bottom line, and that affects who teaches undergraduate classes. The number of full-time, tenure track faculty at US colleges and universities has drastically fallen to that point that today, about 70% of teaching faculty are not on the tenure track. In most US schools, the majority of courses are now taught by adjuncts. My colleagues and I have talked about the likelihood that, in the not too distant future, smaller schools likes ours will start using Moocs or other cost-saving "innovations". Except at elite schools, full-time, tenured faculty are becoming an endangered species.

Will students' memories of their college days be about watching pre-recorded videos by a famous professor, of clicking "send" to submit their major papers electronically? My students may not recall all the details of the grammar of ancient languages or the causes of the Peloponnesian war, but they likely will remember me pulling over a chair and filling every space of the board with Greek words in purple and green.

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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Open online courses – an avalanche that might just get stopped

University lecture: is there really a substitute for face-to-face learning in higher education? Is there really a substitute for face-to-face learning in higher education? Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

These days there are plenty of prophets preaching hi-tech and digital solutions to the problems of expanding access to knowledge and higher education. Barely a week goes by without some new hymn to education technology, open-source software or open-access publishing. In the US, the growing chorus for online education through massive open online courses, or moocs, has been deafening. But in Britain, it has barely registered. Last December, the commercial launch of the Open University's mooc platform, FutureLearn, attracted the participation of a dozen universities and the support of David Willetts, but little response from Britain's beleaguered academics. No wonder that last month Sir Michael Barber, the chief education adviser of Pearson, the world's largest profit-making education provider, proclaimed that universities were powerless to stop the online avalanche.

Across the Atlantic, the debate about online courses and their potential to restructure higher education has been raging for some time. New companies and consortia of universities with hi-tech names such as Udacity, edX and Coursera are competing to provide rival mooc platforms. These moocs are available free to anyone, but they do not earn you any credits towards a degree or diploma. No one has yet figured out how to make money from them. Nowhere has this been more evident than at the University of California, where UCOnline, set up with a $7m (£4.5m) loan in 2011, has spectacularly failed to pay for itself, let alone generate income.

Historically, the University of California has often proved a weathervane for global trends in higher education. It was at the forefront of creating a mass public higher education system in the 1960s, and disinvestment from the 1980s onward generated dramatic fee increases, layoffs, protests and occupations that subsequently spread around the world. So when Californian politicians (led by Governor Jerry Brown, who has pledged $37m for online initiatives) and university administrators still believe online platforms are a golden bullet that promises to expand access while reducing costs and students' time to degree, we have to take them seriously. It is not often that the interests of vote-hungry politicians, resource-starved administrators and academics entranced by the democratic potential of open online courses all converge.

And yet when a Californian senator outlined a bill that would allow students in the state to take online classes from a private provider for credit, it unleashed a storm of criticism. A UC faculty petition collected more than 1,000 signatures in 48 hours. As news spread across the US, condemnation came from the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education and a New York Times editorial.

Those who teach in California's system of higher education are not luddites. Neither were they simply alarmed at the attempts to bypass established mechanisms of peer review and quality control of classes. In the face of the uproar, these have now been dropped. But the stakes are far greater than faculty control and oversight.

If private providers are allowed to run classes for credit in California's public system, it will accelerate privatisation. It will solve the conundrum of how to make profits out of moocs by providing private providers with a revenue stream from public funds. This type of back-door privatisation, rather than the likes of Pearson taking over a whole campus, seems a real and present danger in the English and Welsh system.

Private online providers have long been criticised in the US for profiting on the back of federal-funded loans to disadvantaged students, who rarely complete their classes. While online providers have proved remarkably reticent about making this type of data available, two studies from Columbia University researchers have shown the uneven effects of online classes. In Washington and Virginia they found that underachieving, minority and disadvantaged students fared particularly badly when they took online classes. The promise of moocs to improve access and democratise knowledge is a chimera.

The bottom line is that there really is no replacement for face-to-face interaction between academics and students. Digital and online methods can enrich those interactions, but it seems unlikely they can replace them in anything other than a greatly impoverished way without the investment of considerable resources. No wonder 72% of those who have taught moocs over the past three years believe students who took their classes had not done sufficient work to deserve credit from their institution.

This might just be one avalanche that gets stopped – events in California may well be the test of that.

• James Vernon teaches history at the University of California, Berkeley

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Why universities should acquire – and teach – digital literacy

Students on laptops

 Students are digital natives. Photograph: Alamy

Sebastian Faulks observed recently that ease of access to the internet is leading to a "net loss of knowledge" in this generation of adults, leaving the modern intellectual world in a "kind of catastrophe". But is there another side to this gloomy story? Once time and brainpower are freed up from memorising, will other skills come into play, bringing hitherto unimagined benefits?

One such skill is broadly labelled digital literacy. The phrase is used to cover everything from grasping the basic functionality of a computer/tablet/smartphone, to mastering the sophisticated techniques and attitudes needed for online collaboration and communication through social media. Widely understood to be essential to success in the workplace and modern life, it is a subject that is beginning to emerge as key in the world of higher education.

Higher education usually happens at an intermediary stage between childhood and adulthood when students acquire some of the life skills that will be needed after graduation. Part of what a university can do is provide new graduates with the skills and knowledge to take them into the workplace.

Current undergraduates have never known a life without the internet – it is the glue that holds their personal and social lives together. It makes sense that universities should be nurturing students' familiarity with technology, encouraging its use in teaching and learning, and paying attention to developing broader digital literacy skills.

However sensible this might seem, the reality is somewhat different. Lecturers (who are powerful role models for students) can be very resistant to adopting new digital teaching practices, and will vary in their ability to engage with the online world. Few universities seem to have adopted a digital literacy agenda in a widespread or meaningful way.

While the use of online courses and e-books is growing in UK education, they are still a minority interest. Lectures are often delivered using traditional methods, with a great reliance on dead tree materials, and physical core textbooks continue to hold ground over digital versions.

Raised tuition fees may be the factor that forces change in the UK higher education sector. Universities, now competing more intensely with one another for the best students, are increasingly seeing their own technical preparedness as a differentiating factor, and some are offering technical enticements to prospective students – free devices or free e-books.

At the HE Academy annual conference in 2012, the vice-chancellor of the Open University, Martin Bean, reflected these sentiments in his keynote speech. He noted: "In an era of raised fees, when students need to see the value of their loans, we need to find ways to bring to life the magic of high quality teaching."

Once an institution buys into a digital or e-book platform for the delivery of core course materials, they begin to discover just how much it can help with teaching and learning. Interactive resources, audio and video can all be embedded into the e-textbook, bringing the materials to life and giving instant feedback.

Textbooks can be built in the university virtual learning environment, linking to online course materials already prepared for the student. In some cases, university administrators are able to use analytics to monitor overall usage and engagement with e-textbooks supplied to students.

Digital literacy starts with the mechanics of using digital resources and digital devices. It's through e-textbooks, library resources, online databases, or even the web that an expertise in searching, finding, critiquing, absorbing and referencing multiple sources is learned.

Students also find out how to handle information overload, shutting off distracting online sites long enough to focus on one piece of work that they need to get done on time.

Additional layers of digital know-how can to be added as the student moves to a deeper lever of expertise. With all the facts at their fingertips, students can learn to collaborate to add context and meaning to the facts, drawing analogies, preparing theories, and building conclusions. They can learn how to communicate and present their ideas expertly through social networks to colleagues and peers inside and outside their usual network. They can practise working with feedback, and conversing in an iterative loop.

Universities can do more to teach the basic digital literacy skills that students are seeking to prepare them for the workplace. They can recognise that digital literacy skills in their broadest definition will bring great benefits to students, to their eventual place of employment, and to their lifelong working and personal life.

Students, already expert users of technology, need direction to turn their technical skills into skills for learning and employability. They will recognise the value of an advanced digital literacy agenda provided by a university.

• Fionnuala Duggan is managing director for CourseSmart International, where she oversees its e-textbook platform and digital course material for international markets.

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