• Dave Foord
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The ‘Great HE financial swindle’

HE finances in the UK have hit the headlines recently – with the disgusting fat cat approach to pay of senior leaders, the current strikes, where University lecturers are making huge personal sacrifices to try and protect the future of HE in the UK, and then Theresa May ironically calling for a review into university fees.

Image of a student in a libraryIt is the level of tuition fees that I want to focus on in this post, but the other two points are connected and cannot be separated. The title of this post is influenced by the “Great Rock ‘n’ Roll’ swindle” – of the punk revolution in the 1970s, a movement that challenged the then status quo (not the band itself) of the music industry, and I feel that HE needs a similar style of challenge to move forwards, and to break its own historical shackles.

Introduction

Tuition fees where introduced in 1998 under the labour Government, with institutions being able to charge £1,000 per year. Although unpopular at the time there was a reluctant recognition that the cost of HE should partly be funded by the people that directly benefit most from it, and £1,000 per year seems (on hindsight) a fair and reasonable amount to pay. Fees where then increased in 2004, when organisations could charge up to £3,000 – and then again in 2010 to £9,000, and currently sits at £9,250

There are various problems with this model:

Most institutions charge the same

The idea of the introduction of fees, is that organisations can charge up to the set limit – e.g. they have the choice to charge less, and should base the charge on the actual cost of delivery. In reality what happens is just about every single organisation charges the top amount for all courses. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to predict this would happen, which is why I think the current review is so ironic – creating a model that will predictably be abused, and then carry out a review when it is abused – to pretend you are doing something about it!

If organisations where charging based on the actual cost of delivery, then we have 3 options:

  1. They have managed to accurately predict student numbers, manage budgets etc, so every single course costs exactly £9,250 to run.
  2. Courses cost more than this, and they are making a loss on everything they do.
  3. Courses cost less than this,  and the students are subsidising other parts of the organisation – e.g. the fat cat salaries that increase at a significantly higher rate than the salaries of all the other workers.

I think that option 1 is highly unlikely, so if we disregard that, and focus on the other two; it is possible that some courses cost slightly more to run, and some slightly less, and it all balances out – but if that is the case, is it fair that students on the ‘cheaper’ courses are subsidising those on the more expensive courses?

I expect many organisations will argue that option 2, is predominant – and through their good will and generosity they are subsidising the learning from other parts of their activity. This may well be true for some places, and is how traditional universities often functioned, but there are many organisations (e.g. the teaching focused ones) that have limited alternate fund raising ability – they cannot be using this model.

And so the big question is – how many organisations are using option 3 – charging more for the courses, than they cost to run, and effectively profiteering from the students and the system? Having worked with many organisations over the years, I cannot say that I have seen a significant wholesale increase in quality over the last 20 years – there are many good courses, but mixed in with that, there are many courses or units within a course, that are badly delivered, badly run, and not providing good value for money for the students.

The payback methodology is set to fail

The idea that students take out a loan to cover these costs, and then pay this back if and when they are earning enough to justify this, seems on the surface to be a good idea – but charging extortionate interest rates (currently 6%) is simply disgusting, and creates the wrong mentality. If someone studies at HE level, they often do so believing that this will lead to better job opportunities and a better salary. If they believe that they will reach the threshold of having to pay back their loan, then they would be better suited not getting a student loan to cover the cost, but borrowing money some other way, with a lower rate of interest. So why do students take out the student loans? – Because they know that if they don’t reach that threshold then they don’t have to pay it back, or to phrase it differently, they are encouraging graduates to not fulfil their earning potential once they enter the world of work as they will be penalised financially when they do.

Tuition fees hide the additional living costs

Another problem with the excessively high tuition fees, is that it masks the real cost of studying – the cost of accommodation, food, books, sports/lab kit etc. is now often over looked in the media who quote the tuition costs, but miss off the other costs, and many families wanting their children to do well, encourage them to go to HE, without really grasping the size of the debt that they will have on graduation, or the impact that it will have on them for many years following.

It doesn’t represent good value for the tax payer

Possibly the biggest loser in all of this, is the honest, hard working, tax payer. If a student doesn’t pay back their loan (and various predictions suggest this will be significant numbers), then the bill is footed by the tax payer, which isn’t ideal to say the least – but the fact that a large part of that bill will be the unnecessarily high interest rates that are simply boosting the profits of the privately owned loan companies, is quite simply a swindle. It is widely reported and understood that a better educated population, makes a country more profitable, with better output, which benefits all, so we should go back to encouraging people to study not deterring them.

Conclusion

I was lucky enough to attend University when we were given grants to cover most of the costs, and I recognise that model isn’t fully sustainable, and to a certain extent isn’t completely fair – so I don’t have a problem with students making some contributions towards their studies, however the current model is clearly broken. The Lib Dems, made a huge mistake when part of the coalition Government – when they rescinded on their pre-election pledge not to increase tuition fees, yes it is possible that a future Labour Government may change things for the better – but if they do, what do you do with the current set of students that are paying fees? If a future Government does reduce or drop tuition fees, although I would welcome the move, it is a little unfair for the current batch that are saddled with debt – would they get some sort of rebate?

It saddens me, that when I was working at a University full time, I was proud to be part of a system (the UK’s HE provision) that is considered to be one of the best in the world, and highly sought after – and here we now, with a broken system, attracting negative press stories, and punishing the future generations for the current and previous generations, financial mistakes.

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Creating a RAG system in Excel tutorial

It may sound a bit sad, but I love Excel – once you have mastered a few simple techniques, you can put these techniques together in different orders to create some very powerful effects, and for me one of the most powerful things that I can do in Excel, is analyse some data in a way that will visually highlight an issue to me, so that I can act upon that issue quickly. One such technique that I (and many others) use is using a RAG rating system. RAG stands for Red, Amber, Green – (based on traffic lights), where things that are on schedule and up to date are Green, things that are a possible concern are Amber, and things that are a significant concern are Red.

Image showing a simple RAG system created in Excel

This following set of videos, are designed as a tutorial to teach you the skills required to create an effective RAG system within your own Excel files.

If you like this tutorial, then please subscribe to my YouTube Channel at:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCWuDqvf7nO6-00JMMxm1lIw?view_as=subscriber


Introduction

The first video is an introduction, showing the end product of what will be created.


Using the Now() function

The Now() function is a very simple way to bring today’s date and time into a cell within the spreadsheet, which can then be used to compare against other dates within the spreadsheet, e.g. to see which are in the past or future.


Using a basic IF statement

The IF statement in Excel is one of the simplest and most powerful ways to carry out analysis of data in Excel.


Using a Vlookup function

The Vlookup function, seems a little confusing at first, but once used a few times is relatively straight forwards – and allows you to lookup a value in the left hand column in a table, and then return a value from a specified column in the same row of that table.


Using the Max and Min functions

The Max and Min function are very simple to use, and will tell you what the largest or smallest value is in a list.


Using Conditional formatting to create horizontal bars

Conditional formatting is where the appearance of a cell changes based on values (either the value of that cell, or different cells). This video looks at creating horizontal bars that move further right as the value increases.


Using Conditional formatting to create icons

Another option when applying conditional formatting is to add small icons to cells, for example up and down arrows, traffic lights, warning flags etc.


Putting this altogether to create the RAG system

The final video shows how the skills covered above can be put together to create the desired RAG effect.


I hope that this tutorial has proved to be useful.

If organisations want training providing in things like using Excel more effectively, then please get in touch via http://www.a6training.co.uk/contact.php

Template to quickly create a 2 Circle drag and drop activity in Moodle

On Monday I released a template that I have created allowing people to easily create a 3 circle Venn diagram activity in Moodle. Today I have created and released a similar template for a 2 circle Venn diagram activity.

The template is PowerPoint based, and allows the teacher, to quickly and easily create the Venn diagram with the correct dimensions, and then the required coordinates that Moodle uses to identify the different zones are provided for you, so it is possible to create such an activity in a matter of minutes rather than hours.

The following image shows how the activity looks in Moodle, in this case I have used a chemistry example – the beauty of this type of activity, is that it can be used in any subject area (not just maths).

Image showing the example activity

The template file for this, can be downloaded directly via:

http://www.a6training.co.uk/resources/2CircleVennDiagramActivityForMoodle.pptx

And a video explaining how to use this is:

I will be adding more similar templates to this collection in the coming days and weeks, and they will be available at:

http://www.a6training.co.uk/resources_Moodle.php

If you want to keep up to date with similar videos, then subscribe to my YouTube channel via:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCWuDqvf7nO6-00JMMxm1lIw?view_as=subscriber

 

Easily create a Venn diagram drag and drop activity in Moodle

There is an excellent plugin for the Moodle VLE called ‘Drag and Drop Markers‘ which allows someone to create quiz questions, where the learners have to drag and drop markers onto an uploaded image. This can be used to name parts of an image (e.g. bones in the skeleton, or geological features of a glacier), or to create effective categorisation questions. One of my favourite question types, is where the learners take pieces of information, and categorise these by placing them in the correct position on a Venn diagram.

To create this from scratch, would be extremely time consuming, so to make my life easier, I have used PowerPoint to create templates for myself, meaning that I can now create these questions in a matter of minutes, rather than hours, and I will release these to the wider community over the coming days and weeks (as I get time to tidy them up etc.) The first such template for release, is for a 3 circle Venn diagram categorisation activity.

The basic principle is:

  1. Name the 3 circles with the correct titles.
  2. Save the slide as an image.
  3. Upload this to the Moodle quiz question.
  4. Identify what markers you want to use.
  5. Identify which of the 8 possible drop zones is correct for each marker.
  6. Copy and paste the coordinates for each dropzone into Moodle.

This takes a matter of minutes to do, and allows someone to create challenging and more effective questions, as part of the formative assessment process.

The template file for this, can be downloaded directly via:

http://www.a6training.co.uk/resources/3CircleVennDiagramActivityForMoodle.pptx

And a video explaining how to use this is as follows:

I will be adding more similar templates to this collection in the coming days and weeks, and they will be available at:

http://www.a6training.co.uk/resources_Moodle.php

If you want to keep up to date with similar videos, then subscribe to my YouTube channel via:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCWuDqvf7nO6-00JMMxm1lIw?view_as=subscriber

 

 

Fit for purpose is in the eye of the beholder

Last week I was talking to someone from an organisation, who sadly are in a bit of a mess at the moment, because they have invested a lot of time and money into a tool, that is totally inappropriate for what they need.

So the question is, how did they end up with this tool? which to me (and most other people) is obviously not designed for their needs, and doesn’t have a chance of working.

The answer to this question is that a senior manager, had used this same tool at his previous employment, where it had been a huge success, so he assumed that it would be a huge success everywhere. The difference is, that his previous employment was a University, with predominately full time learners, studying higher level programmes, whereas his current employment is a smaller provider working with lots of part time tutors and learners on short programmes, for people with low IT skills and confidence.

So how can someone think that something that isn’t fit for purpose, would be suitable? – The answer lies in the old phrase that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ – what one person thinks is beautiful, another person will find repulsive, and here – what one person thinks is ideal, another person thinks is rubbish.

Image of a wrist watchThis reminds me of a similar situation that I am in with my mother. When my father died, she insisted that I took ownership of his wrist watch. This isn’t an expensive watch (as the picture confirms), it isn’t an heirloom, but for my father it was an excellent watch – because he had gnarled, clumsy fingers, which had a Midas touch in reverse of breaking anything they touched. But this watch was tough – and survived the rigours of his fingers, and had never been to the menders, even though he had owned it for over 15 years. So my mother expected that I would adopt and start using this excellent watch with thanks, but I didn’t – not because I have a perfectly good watch – but because the watch doesn’t keep accurate time. Over the course of a day, it could gain or lose up to 5 minutes, which for someone like me that catches trains regularly and works professionally is of no use whatsoever. The time inaccuracy for my father wasn’t a problem – as long as he knew roughly when to make his ‘elevensies’ coffee, or when to turn the TV on for Country File he was fine. Even though I have tried to explain to my mother, that a watch that doesn’t tell me the time is no use to me, she is still clearly disappointed to see me wearing my watch and not his. So she thinks the watch is excellent, I think it is useless.

So what is the moral of this story? Although I am not a big fan of pointless committees, and designing something by committee is usually a bad idea – having the opposite (one person making decisions without consultation) can be a very bad idea, as that one person could easily choose something that isn’t fit for purpose. If I go back to the organisation at the start of the story, what is worse for them, is rather than doing the sensible thing of accepting the mistake and scrapping what they are doing, they are being forced into trying to use this inappropriate tool to try and make it work, which is having a very negative effect overall for them.

But to prove that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, I did eventually use my father’s watch – when one of the pins broke in the strap of my watch, I could use one out of his watch for the repair!

Strategic considerations if thinking of switching from Moodle to Canvas

Last week I attended a ‘Digital Innovation rOundtable’ meeting in London – this is an informal group of FE providers in the London area that meet regularly to discuss pertinent issues in the are of learning technology. Last week’s topic was around Canvas LMS – which caught my interest hence I decided to attend.

All of the providers at the meeting are either current or past users of Moodle, and 3 have made the change from Moodle to Canvas, and have been very pleased with the results.

The purpose of this post, is for me to reflect on the event and to provide some strategic considerations that need to be included in any decision making before switching VLE. I have met with various senior managers/leaders who have decided to make the switch, but the reasons they give are ‘we have heard it is better’, or ‘The college down the road is using it, so it must be good’, and these are not good reasons to make the switch.

At the meeting last week, many of the attendees were unhappy with their Moodles, but this isn’t the fault of the system, but faults in the way that it has been set up over the years, themed and supported. People were saying that they didn’t like Moodle because it doesn’t work well on mobile devices – when in fact if set up properly, Moodle works really well on mobile devices, and is one of its selling points. Other people complained that everything was too cluttered – but this again is down to the decisions made within the organisation. If a Moodle uses a 2 column theme like Adaptable, or the newer Boost them, then it isn’t cluttered at all.

During one of the presentations from an organisation that has switched, they kept highlighting things in Canvas that cannot be done in Moodle – but in fact most of these things, are things that can be done, and with the Moodles that I support are routinely done as standard, which highlights the problem isn’t with Moodle per se, but with the way that it had been used in that organisation. A lot of emphasis was made on the appearance and layout of Canvas, which for those that haven’t looked at it yet, is quite similar to the Boost theme in Moodle.

Advantages of Canvas over Moodle

  • The main selling point of Canvas is its simplicity – it is easier for staff and students to use, which is obviously a good thing, it has also been designed from the ground up based on the user experience, so is a lot less ‘clunky’ than Moodle (which having evolved over many years organically and by lots of different people , there are a few inconsistencies in the way things are done and the language that is used, which to an average tutor is confusing).

Advantages of Moodle over Canvas

  • Moodle has the potential to do a lot more than Canvas, with the huge number of plugins available, and its constant improvement, it is a far more powerful tool (in the right hands).
  • It is also a lot cheaper than Canvas. A typical sized college in the UK should be able to have Moodle externally hosted in the region of £5,000 – £10,000 depending in the specs, and levels of support etc. Speaking to people at similar sized institutions that are using or looking to use Canvas, they are being quoted in the region of £25,000 – £30,000, so there is a significant difference in cost here. If an organisation spent half of the difference between the 2 on training, external support etc. then they could make their Moodles work really well.

Breaking the decision making process down

Image of 2 characters looking at a signpostOne thing that became apparent at last week’s meeting, was the difference between people’s Moodles. Some are good, some bad, and some down right ugly. If you have a Moodle that is so ugly that people hate using it, it has a huge negative perception, then the decision to switch is going to be a very different one to if you have a bad or good Moodle, where investing a little time and money into what you already have is probably a better option moving forwards.

The first steps when considering whether to switch or not, is to consult as many stakeholders as possible – and for this I mean students, teachers, and whatever learning tech teams you have – find out what they like, don’t like, how they are using it, which features are widely used etc.

Then identify what you as an organisation need both now and in the foreseeable future. Many people are choosing options based on current behaviour – e.g. most teachers are sadly still using Moodle as a file repository for their learners, but as we move forward with the notions of blended learning, we need more than file repositories, and we have to be careful that switching to a ‘simpler’ system, may be a good thing for the current behaviour, but what about the expected and required behaviours in a few years time?

Thinking about the costs

As mentioned earlier, if done properly then Moodle should be the cheaper route to go down, which for FE providers at the moment, has to be a serious factor in the decision making process. When Canvas first appeared in the UK, it was seen by many as a cheaper option than Moodle. That is no longer the case, and what we don’t know is what the pricing will be in the future. I firmly believe that Canvas are not planning on following the Blackboard model, of hiking prices once people are committed to using them, but if in the future the company is bought out by a bigger company that does have different morals/pricing ideology then we cannot rule out this eventuality, and this has to be factored in as a potential risk (even if a small one). With Moodle being totally open source and free, there is no risk of a price hike – it will always be free, and if the hosting companies put up their prices, you simply move to someone else. From a risk management perspective, this is a significant advantage of Moodle.

[Edited on 17/01/2018 – Since initially releasing this post, Dave Perry commented that Canvas is owned by a venture capital company – as per this press release: https://www.instructure.com/news/press-releases/instructure-secures-pre-ipo-series-e-round so the risk of a price hike is slightly higher than I realised, as the venture capital firm is going to expect and demand a return on its investment]

Going back to earlier in the post, most people that are unhappy with their current Moodles, are due to poor decisions being made at various points in the set up and deployment, and probably associated with this, is insufficient money and support to get it right. I foresee that many organisations that got Moodle wrong, will see Canvas as a magic pill, that will solve all their ills, and will make the same mistakes with Canvas’ deployment as they did with Moodle’s deployment – the result will be, in 3 or 4 years time, we will be back again having conversations about the problems with Canvas and thinking about switching to whatever is next around the block.

Whether an organisations stays with Moodle or switches, then there has to be an additional internal investment to get the best out of either tool.

Strategic impact on switching

Something that is often missed during the decision making process, is the impact on the teaching staff. If all the teachers hate Moodle, then you don’t have a problem. However if you have some (even if only a few) who like it, and have used it effectively and over the years have invested significant amounts of time and love and energy into improving their courses, then they are not going to be happy to have to redo all that work again in a new system, and this has to be effectively managed. Thinking about myself as a former teacher and how I would react if this happened to me – I would be furious, and any future work that I do, I would make sure is more portable in case we change ship again, but in doing this I would be creating a weaker experience for my learners. If an organisation does have a few such teachers and decides that they are going to switch, my recommendation would be to set up a ‘super-user’ system. Any teacher can apply for this, you then select a handful of super users (based on their previous uses of Moodle). These are then given a single down payment to work an extra week in the summer holidays to transfer their Moodle courses into Canvas, and to use these as exemplar courses for others in the future.

Conclusion

Canvas and Moodle are both excellent tools, and I hope both will be around for many years to come. If an organisation doesn’t have a VLE or their Moodle is so horrendous then the choice of Canvas is easier. If an organisation has Moodle and is either Bad, OK or Good then the decision to switch needs a lot more thought. My instinct would be to first investigate what can be done with what you already have. I support various clients with their Moodles, and the ones where I have a high level of control, then the Moodle is clean, mobile optimised, has high levels of accessibility, a good user interface, and is a pleasure to use – so it is possible to create what you want with Moodle.

The decision making process about whether to switch or not, needs to be a properly run project in its own right, firstly to identify if to switch or not, and then what next steps to carry out to ensure that the development and deployment of whichever tool is properly managed.

Shameless plug

If an organisation wants an independent external person (who is a teacher by background, not a technical person) to come in and review what you currently have, what you could improve, and help you to make the sorts of decisions detailed above, then please get in touch. I have provided such a service for many providers, who have found the process extremely useful, and for many has resulted in significant cost savings, as well as the obvious quality improvements.


Image source: https://pixabay.com/en/away-fork-decision-waymarks-1020437/

Of course it is possible for universities to run 2 year degrees

Earlier this week the BBC reported that the universities minister Jo Johnson, has proposed that some degree courses could be delivered in two years rather than three, which would save the students approximately £25,000 in total on their education costs. Since this announcement, I have seen lots of comments from academics, and universities themselves, saying that this is a ridiculous idea that cannot be delivered in reality – and this both upsets me and worries me.

Image of a lecture theatreWhen I worked for a university over 10 years ago, we carried out a feasibility study and a project looking into accelerated degrees courses, and concluded that it was perfectly possible to do this in a way that was sufficiently attractive to both the learner and the university. And that was 10 years ago – when we look at how much technology and our understanding has evolved in that time, it should be perfectly straight forward to do this now, especially if some of the degree is delivered online.

I am not saying that a 2 year degree is a good thing, there are many advantages of 3 year degrees, mainly that the student has time to challenge their own thoughts and beliefs and change them over time as their studies progress – but recognising that there are now huge financial burdens on getting a degree, I feel that socially there has to be progression into looking into more flexible methods of achieving a degree, either via accelerated courses over 2 years, or via more flexible elongated courses, allowing students to work and study at the same time.

But my main worry here, is the fact that so many people have stated that it isn’t possible. If we look back 150 years, manned flight wasn’t possible, space travel wasn’t possible, Climbing Mount Everest wasn’t possible, people owning their own computer wasn’t possible etc. Of course it is possible to run a degree over 2 years. Yes one would have to look carefully into the logistics, and the make up of the teaching personnel within a team may have to change slightly to accommodate different ways of working, but from a student’s perspective, many degree courses work on about 30 weeks of study a year, which leaves 22 weeks of non-study time, of which some could easily be used for extra work.

So why have individuals and organisations been so quick to dismiss the possibility here – and this is what scares me. I believe that the organisations realise that if it is better value for the students, then it probably means less money for them, hence the resistance towards it. If this is the case, then economically this would suggest that what universities are currently charging the students is more than what it actually costs to teach them.

Whether 2 year degrees are a good thing or a bad thing, isn’t the key here – the key here is that anything which increases student options is good – I expect that most students would stick with the 3 year model anyway, but for the few that do choose an accelerated degree it could mean the difference between doing a degree or not. I hope that some universities out there see this potential opportunity positively and do take up the challenge to deliver in this way.