A financial model for blended learning

I was recently involved in a training session with managers on blended learning, and the underlying issue for them was working out a sustainable financial model for this way of working.

The easy (but ineffective and ultimately expensive) approach is to simply ask teachers to develop the online learning elements in their own time, and then reward them by reducing their face to face contact time for each unit or module. This results in the teachers then teaching more units or modules in total, which means more marking (which as we all know, teachers do in their own time). Not surprisingly this method doesn’t work, but sadly it seems to be the approach that many are adopting – all that happens, is the good teachers leave to work elsewhere, and the organisation has to go through the expensive process of finding replacement staff, and the associated disruption to the team dynamics.

So the solution is to find a model that works for the students, the teachers and the organisation. This may sound like an unattainable Holy Grail, but it is possible, and  a college I supported recently used such a model in one of their HE areas which I will describe here.

Need

The initial driver came from the students; who didn’t like travelling into college 4 days a week, and then find the lectures were often not ‘focused’, and there were big gaps between lectures. The idea was to reduce the face to face element so they only had to attend on 3 more focused days. Each lecture would be reduced in length by roughly 25% and be replaced by an online element that students do in their own time, either as preparation for the face to face element (flipped learning) or as a follow up from the face to face provision (it varied from unit to unit).

Development

A pile of £1 coinsThe team invested money into developing this model, by actually paying the teachers a small amount to develop each of the online chunks. I forget the exact amount, but it was something like £10 per online session, and they had to develop the relevant resources/activities before they were paid. Most of the staff carried out this additional work in the summer months before the start of the next term, and they were supported by the in-house learning technologists, and myself.

First year delivery

In the first year of delivery, although the face to face time for students was reduced, the amount of teaching time allocated to the teachers remained the same, this allowed them to effectively support the online elements that they had developed – and to reflect on and improve them. This means there was no increase in the teachers marking commitments, and made the model attractive to the teachers.

Second year delivery

In the second year of delivery, the teachers allocation was reduced to more closely match the actual face to face delivery time, but they were still given a one third allocation for the online elements (e.g. for every 3 hours equivalent of online element, they were allocated 1 hour of teaching time). They also changed the pay mechanism, so the basic pay was effectively less, but the teachers were paid for marking on a per assignment basis – e.g. if a teacher has a particularly large cohort, they are paid more for marking than another teacher who has a much smaller cohort. This payment was again relatively small, but an essential part of the whole mechanism, as a long term objective of this process, was to increase the student numbers on the courses, which wouldn’t be possible if teachers are paid a flat fee for the marking.

Subsequent years delivery

Once set up and working, the model then becomes financially attractive for the organisation – even by paying the teachers to support the online elements, and changing the assignment marking element (neither of which were huge additional costs anyway) – the overall staff cost was less than before, but where the real financial gains came in, was in the courses where they were able to increase the student numbers – in some cases significantly, and easily offsetting the initial financial investment required in development and years 1 and 2.

Result

This model worked, as it met the needs of students (who preferred this way of working, and the reduced travelling times/costs). The teachers were happy, as although their work had changed, they didn’t feel like their workload had been increased. At first some teachers were apprehensive, but they recognised that this was happening whether they like it or not, so got on board. Many of the teachers involved in the initial development, found that as well as being paid for this extra work, they actually reduced their overall preparation time that they would have done anyway. And of course the college was happy as this became a very lucrative source of revenue for the college, as well as overall raising the quality of the provision.

Key points

This worked because the college had the ability and foresight to invest sufficiently in this area. They then approached this strategically, by planning, engaging with appropriate advisers, and then following this through. The initial driver for the change, was not financial, but was about raising the quality of the product/service being offered. The financial benefits although expected were secondary, and I think helped to make more money in the longer term. Yes, the college had a model whereby they could change the pay mechanisms for the staff involved, which was essential for this project, and some colleges will say they don’t have that flexibility, but if providers want to survive in these difficult financial times, then they will have to start to do things differently, or rephrasing this – be more business-like. And finally, they picked areas that they were confident they could increase their student intake, which was essential for the longer term sustainability.

Can other providers use this model?

Simple put – yes, of course they can. Many organisations will come up with reasons why they cannot adopt this model or a similar one, but most of the ‘reasons’ will be self-imposed, and if unpicked can be resolved. The key is to identify a small number of areas to do this initially, areas where it is most likely to work, and where there is potential to increase student numbers over time (which gives the financial benefit of economy of size). Once these areas have been set up, and are into years 2,3 and onwards (and thus bringing financial benefits for the organisation) – then start to roll this out to other areas within the organisation.

A different organisation that I worked with, when implementing a similar approach, we developed a model which started with investing in a single area initially, then the next year expanding slightly, and building up bit by bit, until after 7 years, all areas would have been ‘converted’. This required an initial investment in years 1 and 2, but after that, the financial savings of the early adopters, funded the development of the other areas, and from year 4 on-wards, as well as funding the development, would also return a ‘profit’. I am aware that organisations will tell me they ‘don’t have the funds to make the initial investment’ – but this is where the strength of the organisation leadership comes in – in that strong leadership will find that investment somehow, and then commit fully to make this work, to ensure that they get a return on the investment.

I have made reference on a few occasions about the financial benefits of increasing student numbers (which gives economies of scale), obviously there is a finite number of students out there, so all organisations cannot increase their numbers in all areas. I think providers will have to carefully identify which areas they are strong in, and which areas they are weaker in. They will increase their numbers in the strong areas and reduce the numbers in the weaker areas (probably getting rid of that area of provision). Ideologically I don’t like suggesting that organisations should cull entire areas, but the sad reality is that we live in difficult financial times, where education is grossly under-funded and if we want to survive, we have no option but to make these harsh business like decisions.

Image Ref: https://pixabay.com/en/background-british-budget-business-20126/

Does Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) actually enhance learning?

A few weeks ago, someone posted the following request to the ALT Mailing list that I am on:

‘…who on the list could point me to evidence of TEL enhancing learning/teaching.’

Women using a laptop, with chalkboard behindThe request kick started a very good debate and discussion about the weaknesses of research in this area, the merits of learning technology, and various other asides, and without taking this blog post down the same direction as the discussion, I want to focus purely on the wording used, and its strategic significance.

The term TEL (Technology Enhanced Learning) has a clue in it’s name – in that it is where the use of technology has enhanced learning – and therefore the simple answer to the title of this blog post is ‘Yes – TEL, enhances learning’. The problem is that people use the term TEL, to describe any use of technology within education – not just the uses that enhance the learning. People that are anti progress in this area, often cite examples of negative impacts of using technology: ‘I used the interactive whiteboard, but it wasn’t calibrated, so nothing worked, I would have been better off with a whiteboard and pens’, ‘I uploaded my PowerPoints to the VLE, but no students accessed them’ etc. But these are not examples of Technology Enhanced Learning, these are simply examples of bad learning (or bad teaching if being technically correct).

Some may accuse me of getting hung up on simple semantics, or even being flippant here, but I can assure you that this post is written in up-most sincerity, and is an issue that I feel very strongly about. If we are going to use the term TEL – then we have to be prepared to differentiate the difference between good use and bad use. Yes there is a retort that ‘how can one make the judgement without empirical evidence based on academic research’ – but at the simplest level, if a tutor has used technology, and they know that it hasn’t improved the learning experience, then it wasn’t TEL – it doesn’t require research to determine that. Yes there is another possible scenario, where they think the use of technology has enhanced the learning, but in fact it hasn’t, and this is where research does come in – but the research has to avoid getting itself warped by only looking at TEL – instead it has to look at all uses of technology.

There are two main morals to this story:

  1. If organisations are going to use the term TEL as part of their strategies, objectives, etc. are they somehow able to differentiate the genuine TEL from just bad practice?
  2. If people are going to research what evidence there is that technology enhances learning/teaching – then they have to look at the wider use of technology, not just the ‘Enhancing’ use.

As usual, I expect my blog post to upset or unease a few people, but I think there is value in posts like this, which if nothing else, will make people think a little bit about the language used, and its significance.


Image source: https://pixabay.com/en/learn-school-student-mathematics-1996845/

The 4 stage model for use of a VLE

A major part of my work at the moment, is working with and around VLEs, either by creating content and activities, or providing training to teachers or learning technologists in the effective use of the VLE. As part of my work in this area, I have identified that there are different steps to go through for the effective use of a VLE, which I have simplified into the following diagram, and which (I think) has huge significance strategically for organisations that are trying to get teachers in particular to make better (or at least more) use of the VLE.
Set of steps, which are labelled from bottom to top as; Managing, Designing, Building, RepurposingThe 4 steps are:

1: Managing

Many of the clients that I work for, hire me to design and create the various activities that form the backbone of a course on a VLE. The teachers then become skilled at managing these activities – e.g. pointing the students to quizzes at the appropriate times, moderating and encouraging forum based activities, providing constructive feedback for formative assessment activities etc. These teachers in the main are not involved in the design process, and certainly not the building/creating process.

2: Designing

Once a teacher has worked with and managed activities that has been created by someone else, they start to understand how such activities work, what the important ingredients are, and why and when the activities are used. They can then start to design new activities – this may be sketching out the ideas or concepts on paper, it may be creating source information in Word, PowerPoint or Excel – the information then goes to a learning technologist who turns their ideas and content into the actual activity.

3: Building

The third step is the actual building or creating of the activities, i.e. using the VLE tools to actually create the books, quizzes, assignments, forums etc. from this content.

4: Repurposing

Once someone has become proficient at building activities, they can then start to repurpose existing content, and hand in hand with this, build content in a way that makes it easy to repurpose in the future (either by them or someone else).


Some organisations have a centralised learning technology team, which is great, as they can help teachers gradually work their way up through the steps. When a teacher is new to this area of work, the learning technology team can do the building for them, allowing the teacher to concentrate on managing and designing. Then as the teacher becomes more proficient, they may start to do some or all of the building, and later repurposing.

However, there are many organisations out there that don’t have such a support mechanism, or the team is too small to be able to effectively meet all the building and repurposing needs of the organisation, and this then forces steps 3 and 4 onto the teaching staff, often without them having worked through steps 1 and 2.

I don’t have a magical answer to this problem, as money is tight, and organisations cannot just create large support teams out of nowhere, but if we think about this 4 step model, and identify the necessity for teaching staff to work their way up it, it is possible to rethink a little about how we do things. I have worked with some organisations recently where I have been asked to come in and run training, where I have had a few hours to try and get teachers jumping straight into step 3, and without any central support for the staff once I leave at the end of the day. This is always going to be tough for those staff. What would be really good is, if there is a mechanism where staff can manage some existing content first, then design some basic activities which someone else creates for them, and then they receive the training in how to build/create content etc.

Within FE and HE at the moment, there are huge pushes to get people using learning technology more (and in many cases the VLE)  – and what is very noticeable is the very different approaches that organisations offer in the way of support, and more significantly the different levels of understanding from the decision makers in these organisations.

The importance of Leadership vs Management in FE when implementing #FELTAG

FELTAG (Further Education Learning Technology Action Group) has been around now for about three years, and in some areas there has been significant progress, in other areas the progress has been slower. One thing that has become apparent to me in my travels around the country and numerous organisations, is the ‘elephant in the room’ that is recognising the difference between leadership and management.

Leadership is about have vision, ideas and long term objectives; then inspiring people to follow those visions and ideas. A good leader will (usually) be an inspirational speaker/presenter, will be someone that is prepared to challenge the norm, and will seek new ways to achieve the goals they have set.

Management is about making sure that steps required to realise the vision and objectives are followed correctly. A good manager is someone that is organised, can break big problems down into more manageable steps, follows and applies protocols, and makes sure that things get done.

Image of a duck leading other ducks.

A leader, and many managers

So the skills and personality requirements of the two are completely different to each other – and herein lies the problem. Further Education in the UK is not very good at separating the two out. Quite often the principal (or equivalent) in an organisation, will be a ‘leader’ – but they will be supported by a SLT (Senior Leader Team) made up of managers. We then get managers making leadership decisions or leaders trying to manage projects – neither of which working well, due to the wrong personality types doing the wrong things. In larger organisations such as universities, or in the private sector – it is much clearer that some people are employed as leaders and some are employed as managers – but that clarity is lacked in FE, where the terms leadership and management are often used interchangeably to describe the same people.

From my perspective, I am often brought into organisations to run staff development in the area of blended learning. I always try to identify the organisations position, and then deliver a bespoke session based on this. Quite often the SLT has identified some totally arbitrary objective for all teaching teams e.g. they have to make 20% of their provision online. There is often no consideration of what that actually means, or why they are doing it, or what is in it for the teachers (or students). Sometimes it is obvious, that there isn’t a clear understanding of what the SLT want, which is problematic. In other situations, the SLT are clear what they want (or they think they are clear), but they haven’t articulated this down to the team leaders and teaching staff who have to implement this.

One of the things that I try to ascertain when working with clients, is ‘which model(s) of blended learning are you working towards?’, the response often being ‘blah blah 20% online blah blah’. There are many different models in which blended learning can be applied, and to be successful, the starting point for any organisation has to be identifying which model(s) are to be used for which situations (and a one size fits all/none approach isn’t a good model) – each subject area, and different courses within that subject area will have different ‘best’ models that they could use, but sadly I am often running training sessions for teachers, where they don’t know what model they are working towards, which makes the chances of success very remote.

And so back to the title of this post. I cannot pretend that I have a magic answer to this situation, but if there is a recognition that there is a difference between leadership and management – and the leaders do the leading and managers do the managing, then this is certainly a step forwards. From a blended learning perspective – the key is that the leaders have a clear long term vision for the organisation that they articulate well, and the managers have the autonomy and confidence to identify and implement the different models of blended learning in the teams that they support.

On the 6th December 2016, I am running a session titled ‘Effective development and management of blended learning‘ at EMFEC in Nottingham. A large part of the session will be looking at some of the different models of blended learning, and how the development of these can be strategically managed by an organisation.

How to display the sheet name in a cell in an Excel spreadsheet

I use Excel a lot, not just for crunching numbers, but for creating teaching resources, lesson planning, managing my accounts and invoices and various other uses. One feature that I often use, is the ability to have the sheet name appearing inside a cell in the spreadsheet – so for example with my invoices – I rename the sheet name with the invoice number, this then updates the invoice within the sheet.

To do this I use the following formula below.

This may seem a complex formula, and it doesn’t matter if you don’t fully understand it (I don’t), you just need to copy and paste this into a cell in the spreadsheet, and the sheet name will appear. If you change the sheet name, the cell will change accordingly.

The only caveat is, that the workbook has to have been saved at some point for this to work – so if you do this with a new workbook, it won’t work until it has been saved.

This technique is unique to Microsoft Excel, it doesn’t work with other spreadsheet tools such as Open office, Google sheets or Apple’s Numbers.

#FELTAG – buying or not buying resources conclusion

This is the 4th and last post in a series looking at the issue of should we buy off the shelf resources or produce resources in house. The previous posts have been:

  1. #FELTAG – to buy or not buy resources?
  2. #FELTAG – Considerations when buying off the shelf resources
  3. #FELTAG – Considerations if not buying off the shelf resources

My intention in this series is to provide the decision makers in organisations with ideas and considerations to help them make an informed decision in this area of work – a decision that is not easy or straight forward, yet the consequences of making the wrong decision are huge.

Every organisation is different, so there certainly isn’t a one size fits all answer. What is right for one, will be totally inappropriate for another, and when a decision is made it doesn’t have to be a blanket whole organisation decision, It may be that for certain teams it is better to produce resources in house; because they have the skill to do so, and the quality of the commercial options in that area isn’t great. Then other teams, may choose to buy all or some of their resources in.

It also isn’t necessary to buy all resources from the same provider – yes they may give you a huge discount for buying a full suite of resources across all subjects, and yes it would be easily technically and managerially to deal with one set rather than lots of sets – but if the resources for certain subjects within the suite aren’t good enough, then they either won’t be used, or will be used badly.

It may also be necessary to change tactic part way through, e.g. you may choose to produce resources in house for one particular course, but part way through you realise it is just too difficult and isn’t working, and you decide to buy in. Or you may choose to buy resources in – but once you have done so, you realise that you could do a better job in house, so you start to develop your own – which you then phase in as the bought ones become obsolete (e.g. at the end of the year on an annual subscription).

It is also imperative to shop around – don’t just jump straight into the ones that are endorsed by the awarding body – especially as some of the awarding bodies are also publishing companies – their endorsement is not always a sign of their real value and quality.

Whatever decisions are made – many factors have to be balanced as follows:

  • Financial – buying in and producing in house both cost money.
  • Quality – buying off the shelf, on the surface should be higher quality as far as resources go – but doesn’t mean the overall quality of the teaching and learning will be higher (just like buying really expensive glossy books, does not substitute quality teaching).
  • Time – Buying in is certainly the quicker option, but if the resources aren’t appropriate or don’t fit the organisations systems, learning how to use them effectively may take additional time.
  • CPD – producing resources in house, becomes part of the CPD process, so brings an additional benefit that you don’t get from buying in.
  • There is a lot out there for free – there is a huge amount of freely available materials and assets that can be used. So in some areas, buying off the shelf resources is relatively expensive, as you could easily produce something similar in house very cheaply. In other areas where there is less freely available content, buying resources is better value pound for pound.

Whatever choice is made – it mustn’t be rushed, it has to be balanced, and all relevant parties need to be involved in the decision making process. If the right decisions are made, it is possible to provide a really high quality and cost effective learning experience.

Image of a pair of balance scales

Balance

Whereas I welcome comments on my blog posts, please don’t use this blog post as a way to either promote or criticise any particular companies or products. Any such comments I will delete.

Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/julia_manzerova/4748112382/

#FELTAG – Considerations if not buying off the shelf resources

This is the 3rd post in a series on “FELTAG – To buy or not to buy resources“. In my last post, I looked at the advantages and disadvantages of buying off the shelf resources. In this post we will look at the advantages and disadvantages of not buying.

From a simplistic perspective, not buying resources is an easy option, as management can just ask teachers to do the extra work in their own time, at no extra cost to the organisation. Although this may seem a simple and convenient solution in this financially difficult time – the result will be low quality teaching and learning, teachers being off work ill, and many good teachers leaving the profession – none of which are good for the organisation long term.

Image of teachers creating resources

Teachers creating resources

If teachers are being expected to create new content, then some time or financial reward for them will need to be found for this to be truly successful – so we shouldn’t look at the ‘Not buying resources’ option as a cheaper solution (as it probably won’t be) – we should make the decision based on the quality aspects and strategic benefits.

Strategically – working with teachers to develop resources, is a very important element of upskilling them to being competent digitally capable practitioners. So any cost invested in the development of resources with or by teachers – isn’t just creating resources but is forming part of the CPD requirement for those staff – if we think about this issue from this perspective alone, financially this becomes much more attractive.

Other benefits are:

  1. Resources will be developed in line with your existing systems, infrastructure, house styles etc. so will ultimately become more embedded than buying off the shelf resources.
  2. Resources will be easier to adapt in line with changes to curricula, subject knowledge, or changes to the devices being used to consume the content.
  3. Resources won’t be as locked down, so will be easier to make more accessible, and adapt easier if required.
  4. Resources can be tailored to the specific location of the organisation – e.g. an organisation teaching catering, can make reference to their own training kitchen. Organisations teaching travel and tourism that are based near the sea, can use resources based on local resorts – this can make a huge difference to learners as they make the transition from fully face to face learning, to blended learning.
  5. With the right amount of support from learning technologists, and high quality staff development – it is possible for a good teacher with average levels of IT ability and a bit of time to generate adequate quality resources that would be comparable or even better than the commercial options (Many of the resources that I have developed with or for organisations are significantly better than the purchasable options).
  6. There are loads of free learning resources or assets out there in terms of OER (Open Education Resources), Creative Commons images, YouTube videos, iTunes courses etc. so creating resources, is not about building everything from scratch – it is about locating, and evaluating existing content – then bringing this together in a sensible way that supports the learner through the journey. If a teacher is creating their own content, I would argue that they should only be creating a maximum of 25% – the other 75% should be free external resources, or adaptations of existing resources used in classroom sessions.
  7. FELTAG is about a whole organisation approach to this area of work. By going down this route, the organisation as a whole will learn and develop and adapt as part of the journey.

Some of the disadvantages are:

  1. For this to be successful this needs to be effectively managed and resourced, which may mean organisations taking a long and hard look at themselves and deciding if they have the management ability to do this – and if they don’t, how do they change the personnel so they can.
  2. Developing resources takes time. When organisations were looking down the barrel of the gun trying to get things done by September 2015, time wasn’t a luxury at their disposal – the dropping of the 10% online being mandatory has given organisations more time (which I think is good) – but they still need to plan carefully, how and when and what order to develop courses. One option is for teachers to be given up front time to develop online resources/activities etc. before the course starts – another option is for the teacher to be given time as the course is running, and as long as they stay ahead of the students will be OK. Either way, you don’t often get things completely right the first time – you need to create something, use it with the learners, evaluate how it went, adapt accordingly etc. I believe that it takes about 3 iterations of this cycle before online elements of courses get to a really good standard.
  3. Some teachers don’t have the skills required, and never will – this then creates a problem for management – do they allow those staff to go to pastures new? or do they carry on putting a greater workload on the teachers that can?
  4. Creating resources in house requires an effective support team. Many organisations at the moment don’t have this (or enough staff in these teams) – and especially for smaller organisations, bringing in staff with the right range of skills can be challenging.

If organisations choose to create resources in house, they can help themselves by thinking of the procedure up front. e.g. who will do the work? If support teams are required, how are they managed and their time charged to the individual teams? What quality assurance procedures or processes will be in place, and most importantly who will manage the process for each different team or course?

Whereas I welcome comments on my blog posts, please don’t use this blog post as a way to either promote or criticise any particular companies or products. Any such comments I will delete.

The next and final blog post in this series, will be summarising the considerations covered in the previous 3 posts.

Image Source: http://www.morguefile.com/archive/display/875771