Code of practice “essential” for learning analytics

We had a lively session on ethics and legal issues at the Jisc Effective Learning Analytics workshop last week, kicking it off by outlining some of the key questions in this area:

  • Who should have access to data about students’ online activities?
  • Are there any circumstances when collecting data about students is unacceptable/undesirable?
  • Should students be allowed to opt out of data collection?
  • What should students be told about the data collected on their learning?
  • What data should students be able to view about themselves?
  • What are the implications of institutions collecting data from non-institutional sources e.g. Twitter?

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Photo: Students Studying by Christopher Porter CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Concern was also expressed about the metrics being used for analytics – how accurate and appropriate are they and could it be dangerous to base interventions by tutors on metrics which portray an incomplete picture of student activity?

A number of the participants had already been thinking in detail about how to tackle these issues. There was a consensus that learning analytics should be carried out primarily to improve learning outcomes and for the students’ benefit.  Analytics should be conducted in a way that would not adversely affect learners based on their past attainment, behaviour or perceived lack of chance for success. The group felt that the sector should not engage with the technical and logistical aspects of learning analytics without first making explicit the legal and ethical issues and understanding our obligations towards students.

Early conversations with students were thought to be vital so that there were no surprises. It was suggested that Informed consent is key – not just expecting students to tick a box saying they’ve read the institution’s computing regulations.  Researchers elsewhere have begun to examine many of these areas too – see the paper for example by Sharon Slade and Paul Prinsloo: Learning analytics: ethical issues and dilemmas.

Mike Day at Nottingham Trent University found that students in the era of Google and Facebook already expect data to be being collected about their learning. His institution’s approach has been to make the analytics process a collaboration between the learner and the institution. They have for instance agreed with students that it’s appropriate and helpful for both themselves and their tutors to be able to view all the information held about them.

Another issue discussed at some length was around the ethics of learners’ data travelling with them between institutions. Progress is being made on a unique learner number, and the Higher Education Data and Information Improvement Programme (HEDIIP) is developing more coherent data structures for transferable learner records. It will be possible for data on the learning activities of individuals to be transferred between schools, colleges and universities. But what data is appropriate to transfer? Should you be tainted for the rest of your academic life by what you got up to at school? On the other hand could some of that information prove vital in supporting you as you move between institutions?

Data on disabilities might be one such area where it could be helpful for a future institution to be able to cater for a learner’s special needs. Ethically this may best be under the control of the student who can decide what information to present about their disability.  However the technology may be in place to detect certain disabilities automatically such as dyslexia – so the institution might have some of this information whether the student wants them to know it or not.

Who owns the data about a students’ lifelong learning activity is another issue. Institutions may own it for a time, but once that student has left the institution is it appropriate to hold onto it? Perhaps the learner should take ownership of it, even if it is held securely by an institution or an outside agency. There may be a fundamental difference between attainment data and behavioural data, the latter being more transitory and potentially less accurate than assessment results and grades – and therefore it should be disposed of after a certain period.

There are of course different ethical issues involved when data on learning activities is anonymised or aggregated across groups of students. One parallel we discussed was that of medicine. A learner might visit a tutor in the way that a patient visits a GP.

The doctor chats to the patient about their ailment with the patient’s file including their previous medical history in front of them. Combining what the patient says with physical observations and insight from the patient’s records the doctor then makes a diagnosis and prescribes some treatment or suggests a change in lifestyle.

Meanwhile:

A tutor chats to a student about an issue they’re having with their studies and has analytics on their learning to date on a computer in front of them as they talk. The analytics provides additional insight to what the student is saying so the tutor is able to make some helpful suggestions and provide additional reading materials or some additional formative assessment to the student.

In both scenarios the professional takes notes on the interaction which are themselves added to the individual’s records. All the information is held under the strictest confidentiality. However the data in both scenarios can also be anonymised for research purposes, enabling patterns to be discovered and better treatment/advice to be provided to others in the future.

So in order to help institutions navigate their way around the complexities would a code of practice or guidelines be of interest to institutions? The consensus was yes it would and this was borne out in voting by the wider group later in the day. The schools sector has already developed codes of practice and obviously the NHS is well advanced in the ethics of data collection already so there is much to be learned from these professions – and from research ethics committees in many of our own institutions. There would need to be consultation with the various UK funding bodies – and working closely with the National Union of Students was seen as key to ensuring adoption.

A code of practice for learning analytics would have to be clearly scoped, easily understandable and generic enough to have wide applicability across institutions. The primary audiences are likely to be students, tutors and senior management. Mike at Nottingham Trent found the key to success was a four-way partnership between technology providers (who were required to adapt their products to meet ethical concerns), the IT department, students and tutors.

There was a strong consensus in the group that this work would significantly help to allay the fears of students and, often just as vocally, staff in their institutions in order to explore the real possibilities of using learning analytics to aid retention and student success.  In fact some stakeholders considered it an essential step at their universities and colleges before they could make progress.  Developing a code of practice for learning analytics will therefore be a key area of work for Jisc over the coming months.

This post was first published on the Jisc Effective Learning Analytics blog, 18th Sept 2014.

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Taking Learning Analytics to the next stage

How do higher and further education institutions in the UK best share their expertise in learning analytics?  Would a jointly developed code of practice for learning analytics help deal with the legal and ethical issues?  How can Jisc facilitate the development of tools and dashboards to help institutions develop their analytics capabilities to enhance student success?

These were some of the questions being addressed by 31 participants last week from UK universities, colleges and organisations including SCONUL, RUGIT, UCISA and the NUS at a workshop in Jisc’s offices in London.  Increasing amounts of data are being collected on students and their learning – but it’s clear that our understanding of how best to interpret that data and make use of it is still at an early stage.

Jisc effective learning analytics workshop

Back in April the Co-design Steering Group developed the idea of an effective learning analytics challenge.  Then over the summer we gathered 21 ideas from the community to address the challenge of learning analytics.  Voting from more than 100 people narrowed the list down to nine ideas and accompanying service scenarios that we discussed at the workshop.

One theme that emerged strongly from the discussions was a need to involve students in developing learning analytics products and services.  An app for students to monitor their own learning was seen as a critical requirement which Jisc could help provide.  While improving retention was regarded as important, the main long term goals would be to support learning attainment, assist decision making and pathway choice, and improve employability.

After some engaging discussions in smaller groups we came back together to vote on the top three themes, merging some of them in the process to form the following priorities:

Priority 1: Basic learning analytics solution and a student app
One of the most popular ideas was a “freemium” solution for further and higher education institutions, allowing them to gain experience and eventually progress to a more advanced toolset.  It would be based on an existing solution from an institution, vendor or open initiative that could be ready to provide a working product in early 2015.  The product would require the development of an open standard for analytics and an API enabling other compatible basic analytics solutions in the future.

Alongside the basic solution would be a student app which works with any learning analytics solution provider using a specified set of data inputs.  Students would be involved in scoping and designing their requirements for the app.

Finally we felt there was a need for a tool for tracking and recording interventions which take place as a result of analytics.  This will inform the development of a learning analytics cookbook (see below) which will suggest appropriate ways that staff and systems can intervene to enhance student success.

Priority 2: Code of practice for learning analytics
A huge priority for institutions is how to deal with concerns around data protection and privacy both from a legal and ethical perspective.  The potential benefits of learning analytics are well recognised but there are also possibilities for misuse. A guide to learning analytics practice is needed and will be informed by a comparative review of existing codes of practice in this and related areas.  Jisc will then develop the code of practice in partnership with the NUS and others.

Priority 3: Learning analytics support and networks
The group also prioritised the development of a support and synthesis service around the use of learning analytics to share expertise, working on:

  • Technical methods – the nuts and bolts of learning analytics such as what systems and data institutions are using
  • A learning analytics cookbook – with recipes for the use of data and metrics – documenting successful implementations at universities and colleges
  • Synthesis and analysis – giving a high level overview and showing trends across the sector
  • Networks – building networks of institutions keen to share experience both at a basic and advanced level

Next steps
A great deal of enthusiasm for the possibilities of learning analytics was expressed at the workshop – and we benefitted from the considerable experience that has already been gained by many of the participants. The priorities agreed will now be developed into a project plan that can be taken forward by Jisc over the next two years. Full details will be posted to http://analytics.jiscinvolve.org/wp/.

Educational institutions, vendors and other potential partners will be invited to comment and express interest in participating.  Meanwhile we’ll be looking for some expert critical friends to advise us on each of the projects as they progress.

This post was first published on the Jisc Effective Learning Analytics blog, 16th Sept 2014.

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Snooping professor or friendly don? The ethics of university learning analytics


Is my professor watching every click? Mr_Stein, CC BY-NC-SA

Universities have been recording data digitally about their students for decades. No one would seriously question the necessity of collecting facts for administrative purposes, such as a student’s name and address, module choices and exam results.

But as teaching and learning increasingly migrate to the internet, huge amounts of data about individuals’ activities online are being accumulated. These include everything from postings on forums, to participation in video conferences, to every click on every university-hosted website.

Most of the records gather virtual dust in log files, never to be analysed by any computer system let alone viewed by a human. Universities have only recently started to realise the huge potential of using this data to help students succeed in their learning, or to improve the educational experience for others.

Privacy concerns

With these possibilities come dangers that the data could be used in ways undesirable to students. These include invading their privacy, exploiting them commercially by selling their data to third parties or targeted marketing of further educational products.

Meanwhile, well-intentioned pedagogical innovations which access the data may have unforeseen negative consequences, such as demotivating students who are told they are at risk of failure.

Institutions have clear legal responsibilities to comply with data protection legislation, restricting information from access by third parties and allowing students to view the data held about them when requested.

Universities are commercial organisations, but are also motivated by altruistic concerns such as enhancing the life chances of individuals through education. The multinational technology corporations which we unquestioningly allow to collect vast amounts of data about us have altogether different motivations.

For them, your data is of immense commercial value, enabling products to be targeted at you with increasing relevance. Most educational institutions need to act differently from for-profit organisations when dealing with users’ data.

What’s being done with the data?

Predictive modelling enables institutions to build a profile of a student. This can include information they have disclosed about themselves in advance of study, such as prior qualifications, age or postcode. This can then be mapped onto records of their online activity and assessment performance.

Predictions can then be made as to the likelihood of a student dropping out or what grade they can be expected to achieve. The Open University is developing models to target interventions at students thought to be at risk.

For example, a student who has no prior qualifications and has not participated in a key activity or assessment may be flagged for a telephone call by a tutor. Experience has shown that such a call may be what is required to motivate the student or help them overcome an issue which is preventing them studying.

Various ethical issues emerge here. If we establish early on that a student is highly likely to fail, should we advise them to withdraw or to re-enrol on a lower level course?

But what if we are limiting their opportunities by taking such an intervention? They might have continued successfully had we not intervened. Meanwhile, for those students thought not to be at risk, we are potentially denying them the possibility of beneficial additional contact with a tutor.

Opt out option

If the primary purpose of learning analytics is to benefit learners, then should a student be able to opt out of their data being collected?

There are two problems with this. We may be neglecting our responsibilities as education experts by allowing some students to opt out. This could deny them the assistance we can provide in enhancing their chances of success. The data collected can also be used to benefit other students, and every individual opting out potentially diminishes the usefulness of the dataset.

One environment where a student might reasonably assume they are free from data being collected about them is while accessing an e-book offline on a personal device such as an iPad or a Kindle.

Some US institutions are already providing students with e-reader software which captures data such as clicks and dwell times, storing them on the device and uploading it to a server for analysis. But unless users are made aware that this is happening, universities run the risk of being accused of unjustified snooping.

It is unclear to what extent the constant collection of data on online activity inhibits learning or even worries students. Do students care any more about what universities do with data on their educational activities than they do about the data collected by Google or Facebook on their personal interests, relationships and purchasing habits?

But the trust given to universities by students elevates the importance of caretaking their data and establishing clear policies for what we do with it.

Transparency about the data we collect, and how and why we are using it, will help to avoid a backlash from learners worried about potential misuse. Institutions need to develop clear policies arguing why the collection and analysis of data on students and their learning is in their interest. This is a necessary step before being able to exploit the full potential of learning analytics to enhance the student experience.

The Conversation

Niall Sclater does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

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Making ebooks more interactive: logistics and ethics

Ebook reader image (c) Andrew Mason licensed under Creative Commons

I had an interesting discussion yesterday with Phil Butcher, the Open University’s e-assessment guru.  He wanted to talk about whether we should invest in embedding our wide range of interactive question types in ebooks.

Since the 1970s Open University course teams have attempted to get students to think more deeply about the content they are reading by embedding questions within the course texts.  Accessing such questions on digital devices has some clear advantages over paper: many different question types are available and you can receive instant feedback, tailored to your response.

This is of course quite possible with web-based learning.  We have OpenMark questions embedded at various points in some of our texts and are considering whether we should adapt Moodle to be able to present single questions within texts in the same way.

But what do we do about ebooks?  Almost all of our content is now available in ebook format on a range of platforms.  If the interactive questions work in print and are even better presented online then shouldn’t we be incorporating them in the ebooks too?

To do this at scale we would have to have an automated process to export the items (questions together with possible responses etc) from Moodle into the ebooks.  Ebooks can render interactive questions using HTML5 but there is a variety of ebook formats, differing hardware and software platforms and a range of ebook reader apps.  The software for this export process would require continual tricky and expensive maintenance to stay on top of all the various formats and there would inevitably be features which worked on one platform and not another.  Another option would be to build our own ebook reader software to be able to optimise the user experience but that too would be complex, costly, have to work on multiple platforms and require ongoing maintenance.

There’s something about the paradigm of a book as a way of presenting digital content in the confusing world of the Internet which gives it appeal (I expanded on this in Are ebooks better than virtual learning environments?): in particular you can download an ebook as a complete self-contained package, access it offline and feel a sense of ownership over it in a way which you can’t with the content on websites.  You can also quickly grasp how many pages it is, navigate easily and know where you are in it.  And of course the ability to alter the font size of an ebook and have it repaginate automatically, to hold it in your hands, and to not have your experience cluttered with the many icons and menus of a PC-based interface all add to its usability.

One of the advantages of ebooks may however be problematic for educational institutions: offline reading.  That means no opportunity to see how students are using any interactive questions.  A valuable source of data for learning analytics to monitor uptake and performance is never gathered – and opportunities for enhancing problematic questions and the associated learning content are lost.  Meanwhile the learner potentially loses out too: there is no chance for institutions to target interventions at students who might be at risk of dropping out or might benefit from being able to compare their performance with other students.

A way around this would be to incorporate recording of user activity into ebook reader software and send it to a server every time the user goes online.  And if we’re recording information about the use of interactive questions why not record data such as how often often the book is being read, dwell time on pages or number of times pages are re-read.  Again that might tell us something about how effective our learning content is or what difficult concepts need to be explained better in future iterations, ultimately benefiting students.  This approach is already being taken by CourseSmart, a company which rents out textbooks and enables usage monitoring through their ebook reader software.

But what are the ethics of this?  While arguably most people are accepting, if not entirely comfortable, that anything they do online is potentially being monitored by those hosting the website this may not be true for ebooks.  Is there something fundamentally different about an ebook where we feel we own it, as we would a physical copy, and would resist the idea that we are being snooped on – even if the snooping was aimed at enhancing our learning?

Universities should be entirely transparent about what they do with any data gathered while students are accessing their systems and content.  It is quite easy to argue that most educational institutions will monitor usage primarily for the purpose of enhancing the educational experience for individuals and for future students.  This is in contrast to commercial entities and social networking sites which monitor usage in order to target marketing at you more effectively or to sell information about you to others.

But what if monitoring ebook usage has a negative effect on the learning experience?  If I’m spending a quiet evening at home reading an ebook and I know that every page turn, click or interaction is being monitored will that make me anxious and somehow less able to learn?   Assuming that we could build this monitoring facility into ebooks, or buy it from someone else, the best way forward from an ethical and pedagogical perspective may be to allow users to decide whether data about them can be collected and sent back to the institution or not.  Research is needed into what learners want out of their ebooks and whether they’re prepared to have data collected about their use of the interactive questions that are designed to promote deeper and more reflective learning.

Ebook reader image (c) Andrew Mason licensed under Creative Commons

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Can mass sychronous events work with MOOCs?

Dave MiddletonMOOCs tend to involve consuming online content, taking automated assessments and peer networking. While students may feel some connection to the academics who create the courses by watching recorded videos of them, the opportunities for synchronous connection with subject experts are limited.

Dave Middleton is a tutor manager with the Open University and has been training tutors to use Elluminate effectively for several years. When online tutorials were offered to students in Wales on Exploring Psychology, one of our most popular modules with around 4,000 participants each year, students elsewhere began to complain that providing the events only to the Welsh was unfair.

So Dave spotted an opportunity to try something new. He opened up an Elluminate room to the entire module population, advertised a two-hour event, sat back and hoped that 3,850 registered students wouldn’t all turn up at once. In the event 200 did. The received wisdom is that online tutorials become unworkable when numbers exceed 20 but clearly the way this was being handled didn’t result in the expected chaos. Dave was able to enable group work and problem-based learning rather than simply lecturing at the students. 75% of them responded that the session had met or exceeded their expectations.

Comments included:

“The tutorial exceeded my expectations! It was well organised, easy to understand and packed with useful information”

“This was truly amazing and inspirational. The concept is fantastic.”

“Very enjoyable – I initially thought 2 hours would seem a long time for an online tutorial but the time just flew by. Great to be taking part from the comfort of your own sofa! ”

“I think these tutorials should be available for all modules as many, like myself, cannot attend face to face ones for the same reason we cannot attend brick uni’s and have chosen to study with the OU. I would like to say well done to the tutors, the organisation and structure was a great improvement. I only wish there were more of them.”

Faculty policy on online tutorial provision was changed after Dave’s experiment. For the first time there was evidence not only that the tutorials could offer an excellent learning experience to large numbers of students but would also be highly popular with those who didn’t otherwise have the chance to attend face to face sessions.

The lesson for MOOCs is that mass synchronous online sessions with subject expects can be motivational and effective. The tools available in Elluminate (now Blackboard Collaborate) and similar systems enable effective interactive teaching with hundreds of students simultaneously. Such sessions have to be properly planned of course both logistically and technically to avoid a “MOOC mess” such as the one which happened on Georgia Institute of Technology’s module with Coursera which resulted in the course being withdrawn.

Is Dave’s experience of dealing with a couple of hundred students at once the limit?  I suspect someone somewhere some time soon is going to push the technology and the logistics to accommodate many thousands of students in an engaging synchronous session.

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MyOU: A seamless online experience for learners

Accessing online content and services has become a vital part of the OU experience. The virtual learning environment has been carefully designed over the last seven years and has some excellent features such as a custom-built forum tool and quiz engine.  Meanwhile we have other systems such as StudentHome, Open Learn and Library Services, full of useful content and tools.  These websites have grown up organically, are owned by different parts of the organisation, have different user interfaces and are not as well integrated as they could be.  Navigating through them to find the information or tools you need, particularly if you’re new to the University, can be a confusing experience.

Current OU systems are disparate

A new initiative called MyOU aims to put this right and will optimise the online experience for our students. Currently in the requirements gathering stage, we are consulting heavily with our learners and with the various stakeholders across the University. MyOU will provide a new layer on top of  existing systems making the online experience much better for students.

Future vision for MyOU:  My OU online experience is seamless. If I’m at multiple stages of the journey at the same time it’s still seamless. I get what I need at the right time.What I see is adjusted according to my profile.Content is presented in different blocks on the screen.The OU gives me a default set of content. I have lots of control over what I see. I can make it look the way I want.I don’t need to know which part of the OU is providing the content.I can access the whole thing with a simple URL e.g. open.ac.uk/myou

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Where next for tuition at the Open University?

Should Open University students be entitled to particular types and amounts of tuition during their studies?  Should provision be consistent across tutor groups, regions and nations, and qualifications?  What are the most successful pedagogical strategies for online synchronous sessions?  How should we engage with Facebook as an institution?  What role do face to face sessions provide in an increasingly online world?

I’m just out of a workshop with an enthusiastic and experienced bunch of people from various parts of the University which was examining some of these questions in greater detail.  The OU has never had a tuition strategy before; practice has developed organically across different faculties and regions.  This leads to inconsistencies of approach and inefficiencies, while also allowing great flexibility and responsiveness to local and individual requirements.

Various factors are coming together however which make the development of an overarching strategy for tuition a necessity for the University:

  • The necessity to optimise our use of tuition resource and methods in order to help retain students
  • The availability of a range of tools which can be used for tuition within the virtual learning environment – and understanding the many possibilities for how to deploy them
  • The greater use of the Internet in society as a whole and increased acceptance of technology (with the caveat that computer literacy and access to technology is variable)
  • Students’ increased expectations in a world of higher fees

The group today brought together a variety of perspectives but achieved consensus on how to develop the tuition strategy and on a number of key issues, namely:

  • There is a lack of evidence on current practice in tutorials and on student perceptions and expectations.  We need to build up an evidence base for what is working in tutorial provision.
  • The default situation for the University should be the provision of online tuition.  We should then supplement this with face to face provision where appropriate.
  • Whatever ends up being in the strategy there needs to be some flexibility to organise provision at a local level to meet changing needs.
  • It may make sense to organise face to face tuition on a local basis while organising online tuition across all regions/nations.
  • We need a clear policy about how we engage with external environments such as Facebook where we have limited ability to take action on misuse.
  • Finally we need to think about tuition at the earliest levels of module production.  In the past our Fordist production methods led us to think of tuition as an add-on, quite separate to the development of learning content.

I’ll be drafting the first version of the tuition strategy and then passing it to my colleague Pat Atkins and others to refine.  It will then travel through the University’s governance processes for further enhancement.  The aim will be for the document to set the direction of travel for the University in tuition, to provide guidance for faculties, module teams and associate lecturers, and to ensure that we maintain excellence in and enhance our tutorial support for students.  The challenge is to produce a document that is concise enough for people to be motivated to read, at a high enough and generic enough level that it is acceptable across all faculties and regions/nations, but low level enough that it can actually achieve something concrete.   It needs to help increase consistency in the student experience without being so prescriptive that it restricts the flexibility to respond to dynamic circumstances.  Fortunately I enjoy a challenge.

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Two paradoxes at the heart of MOOCs

My thinking on MOOCs has been consolidated after doing a fair bit of reading, chatting and thinking recently.  Much has been written on the disruptive potential of MOOCs and also about the problems associated with them such as lack of quality, plagiarism and lack of tutor support.   I have no desire to add to the noise and hype but want to set down two paradoxes that it seems to me are at the heart of the MOOC movement.

Paradox 1:  Most MOOCs are offered by elite institutions which don’t need to expand their student base

So why are they developing MOOCs?  Are they basically caught up in the hype and working on the proven Amazon business principle of build fast and worry about money later? Maybe, but here are some other reasons why they may be launching into MOOCs:

  1. Some providers have argued that MOOCs are aimed at helping them accumulate data on how students learn online which will then allow them to enhance their teaching for regular students.
  2. MOOCs, like open educational resources, provide a genuine opportunity to spread an institution’s educational mission outside the campus.  Call me old-fashioned but I believe that people in education are still frequently driven by altruistic motivations such as knowledge creation and a desire to spread the love of learning – as well as economics.
  3. It may help boost the profile of an individual professor and develop his or her international reputation.  When it comes to promotion will saying you’ve successfully taught thousands of students via a MOOC boost your career prospects?
  4. It may provide additional revenue though for the foreseeable future this is likely to be minimal for the institution and is dependent on developing as yet undiscovered viable business models.

Putting aside issues such as quality assurance, plagiarism and lack of tutor support, let’s suppose that MOOCs develop coherent curricula, peer support mechanisms and robust assessment processes which lead to qualifications at very low cost from credible institutions – and employers begin to take them seriously.  That leads us to the next paradox.

Paradox 2: Highly successful MOOCs attack the core business of those who are offering them

Elite institutions offering MOOCs will therefore never allow them to become as credible as their regular fee-incurring provision.  If an equivalent experience can be had for free no-one will pay fees.  MOOCs therefore will by definition remain an inferior educational experience and have to be offered under a sub-brand or a completely different brand – presumably one reason why institutions are rushing to sign up to Udacity and Coursera so they can jump on the MOOC bandwagon without diluting their own brands.  But successful partnerships where institutions club together to offer modules which build up to full qualifications are fraught with difficulties and have led to some spectacular debacles such as the UK’s £62m e-university.

High quality assessed and accredited MOOCs from Ivy League institutions will not be allowed to disrupt their own core business but may ultimately provide viable alternatives to expensive qualifications from less prestigious institutions.  This is where MOOCs could begin to disrupt the higher education market.  Learners are becoming ever more discerning and there is further evidence that the higher education bubble in the US has burst particularly in the for-profit sector with recent announcements such as the University of Phoenix closing half of its campuses.  MOOC-based qualifications will have to be very good and much cheaper to gain ground in an increasingly competitive market.

Posted in MOOCs | 4 Comments

Can you ever switch off a module website?

Module website

At the moment the Open University’s policy is to remove module websites in our Moodle-based virtual learning environment for three years after the module presentation.  To have all the module content simply vanish after that period is becoming untenable.  For our students the module website is where their learning activities are coordinated and increasingly where they access their learning content in the form of web pages, PDFs, audio and video.  In the past they were sent books containing most of the content, could display the books on their shelves and refer back to them and the handwritten notes they’d added in the margins if required at a later date.  Now with an increasing amount of content delivered online they stand to lose the permanent access they have had to their core learning materials (barring fire or theft of their physical book collection, that is).

Meanwhile collaborative learning activities are increasingly taking place in forums, wikis, blogs and other social media tools within the virtual learning environment.  All the students’ carefully crafted comments or assignment work held in these tools are lost forever when the module website is removed.

Our annotation tool, OUAnnotate, is being used by students to comment on their course content and other websites relevant to their studies. We can hardly encourage learners to use this tool to comment on learning materials for them to later discover that their annotations are no longer accessible because the associated content has vanished.

An additional issue for the Open University is that students (in England at least) are now required to sign up for a whole qualification in order to obtain a loan rather than selecting individual modules one at a time and later deciding how to piece them together into a qualification.  This is having profound implications for the way the University organises itself with the qualification becoming the primary focus rather than the module.  Content, support and communities are thus available from the qualification website as well as the module site.  Assessment may also potentially be organised around the qualification rather than solely at the modular level.

Students might therefore want or need to access online materials they were studying more than a decade previously.

So why do we have this policy of switching off module sites in the first place?  There are various reasons including not retaining personal data indefinitely and not increasing data storage by keeping multiple presentations of the same content for many years.  Another problem is that content authored for one version of Moodle (e.g. a quiz) may require a particular version of Moodle to display it properly.  You might end up having to keep multiple versions of Moodle available indefinitely – a technical and logistical nightmare.

The solution a small group of us concluded this morning is probably that first of all the student has to take responsibility for retaining their learning materials in the same way that they’re responsible for not losing their books right now.  But we need to give them the advice and tools to do so.  We prompt them somehow to say “now that you’re coming to the end of your module would you like to export the content so you can refer to it in the future?” And again three years later, just before the site is about to disappear the student is prompted to export the content if they wish.

We add an “Export Module” button on each module website which exports the core module content i.e. web pages, PDFs, audio and video into a zip file to be stored wherever they want – perhaps also to their Google Drive or another cloud based storage facility of their choice.

For forums we differentiate between those which are to be used primarily for social purposes and those provided for core learning activities. The latter are flagged as such and the “Export Module” facility is built to incorporate the forum content in the zip file, perhaps as a PDF.

Capturing interactive content such as quizzes is problematic as it would mean replicating complex server-based functionality in e-books or other complex formats, maintaining those platforms when they’re upgraded etc but we agreed to look at this possibility.

Students’ annotations to course content remain a problem.  These could be important for revision several years after the module has been studied.  If we export web-based course content as web pages then could the annotations be embedded with the content so they pop up when the content is viewed in the future?

Another issue is that of found content.  If this is paid for there may be licensing issues which prevent the found content from being saved in the export file.  If it’s “free” and merely linked to we could just retain the hyperlink in the web content and not worry too much about linked content vanishing in the future.  That’s assuming the content isn’t absolutely key to the module.  We could also possibly find a way to embed an instance of that linked content at the time of exporting.

Bespoke software such as chemical modelling tools where the student is provided with a licence for the duration of the module would clearly not be able to be exported in this way and will end up disappearing.  But arguably that happens anyway so no change there.

A project is being set up within our Learning and Teaching Solutions unit to tackle all this and we’ll hopefully be able to put an initial solution together quite quickly incorporating the core course content, and later adding things such as forum content and annotations when suitable export functionality has been developed.

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Are ebooks better than virtual learning environments?

OU ebookOk I’m not exactly comparing like with like here but I am very interested in the potential of ebooks as an alternative way of structuring learning experiences – particularly where there is a large amount of reading involved.

With the growing penetration of tablet devices (ownership in the US doubled to 19% over last Christmas) ebooks now have enormous potential for providing learning opportunities. And with nearly a third of UK citizens already owning a smartphone, many of them may be prepared to study extensively from ebooks on smaller screens. Due to my deteriorating eyesight I’m not one of them; tablets are clearly more comfortable devices for extended periods of study so this post relates mainly to tablets.

While the information delivered through an ebook may be identical to that provided on a website, there are several attributes of ebooks which may make them more appealing to learners than accessing content in a VLE:

Learners can own an ebook – they can’t own their institution’s VLE
An ebook is a digital version of a familiar physical product that people have grown up with. Physical books cost money and the transition to paying for a digital copy may not be too painful but people don’t like to pay for access to websites, showing that they value ebooks more. This sense of ownership may encourage learners to engage more with the content of an ebook than a website.

Ebooks can be viewed offline
Once you’ve taken possession of your ebook onto your device you’re free to view it whenever you like which is particularly useful when travelling or away from internet access.

Ebooks are self-contained
The web is a confusing place with an overwhelming number of sites and pages. It’s easy to get distracted when using the web by hyperlinks and other applications.

Ebook readers on tablets take up the whole screen
A web browser has all sorts of tool bars, menus and icons which may distract the reader and provide a less immersive experience than reading an ebook on a tablet.

You know how much you’ve read and how much there is to go
By default an ebook clearly signposts how far through its content you are. Websites may not make this clear – and indeed can’t normally do this as precisely as ebooks due to the variable page lengths of the web.

Automatic pagination makes reading easier
Due to the variety of devices, browsers and configurations, the designer of a web page cannot produce content that will consistently fill the entire screen. Users have a more complex navigational process which may involve vertical scrolling as well as page turning. One of the key features of ebook reader software is the automatic repagination to suit the platform and user preferences such as font size.

Page turning is physically easier with an ebook on a tablet
The touch screen of a tablet or smartphone allows the user to move forwards and backwards between pages with a touch or swipe – a simpler and faster process than turning the page of a physical book and also much easier than using a mouse to navigate to and click on a particular part of a web page.

Far be it from me to suggest that the VLE is dead but given all the affordances of ebooks accessed on tablets it looks like much of the learning activity currently taking place in VLEs is heading to the ebook instead.

Posted in Content, iPad, Mobile Learning | 5 Comments