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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.

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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?

Simply 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/

Creating equations in online environments

I am currently working on a project, where I am creating web based resources (using Moodle) to teach maths. As part of this process, I need to create properly laid out formulas (or formulae if you prefer the alternate acceptable plural of formula). We are using what is becoming a widely accepted standard of MathJax which in turn supports the use of something called LaTex to create the desired formulas. So for example if I wanted to create something that looked like:

y = 3x^{2}+5x+\frac{2}{3}

I would enter this into the editor using the code:

$$y = 3x^{2}+5x+\frac{2}{3}$$

or

\[y = 3x^{2}+5x+\frac{2}{3}\]

At first I started to learn the exact syntax and would translate what I wanted into either of the codes above. This proved to be both time consuming and prone to mistakes. Then I discovered an excellent website that helps me do this:

https://www.codecogs.com/latex/eqneditor.php

This website gives me a box into which I construct the equation that I want – above the box is a huge suite of grey buttons which each represent a different mathematical function or options. These take a bit of time to learn, but quite quickly one gets the hang of this, and using the buttons and adding the numbers / letters that you require you can quite quickly create the desired formula that you want. Underneath the white box, your formula is displayed as it will appear, so it is possible to see what you are doing, and check that this is correct.

Once you are happy with what you have created, at the bottom of the screen (in a cream coloured box) is the option to choose the export style that you want – so if you need LaTex, you choose that, if embedding into WordPress, you choose WordPress etc. You then copy the code beneath this, and paste into the editor of whatever you are using.

One of the facilities within the editor, is to create correctly aligned equations:

Image of an inline equation

Which in LaTex is created with the code:

\[\begin{align*} x+3 &= 7\\ x &= 7-3\\ x &= 4 \end{align*}\]

This is very hard to manually write out, but quite easy using the codecogs website. The button for this, is the bottom right button on toolbar (letters n and r in brackets) – then under that is a button that has “y=…” as the text, and when you hover over it, it tells you that it is the align tool.

For anyone who is using mathematical formulas regularly this is a really neat tool.

 

#FELTAG – Considerations when buying off the shelf resources

In my previous post, I introduced the idea of ‘to buy or not to buy resources’. In this post I will be looking at considerations if you choose to buy resources. The next post will look at the considerations for not buying.

There are certainly potential advantages to buying resources, but I have experienced a lot of places wasting a lot of money on the wrong resources, or buying them for the wrong reasons – I hope that this series of posts will help organisations to make a more informed decision before deciding one way or another.

There are two very strong arguments in favour of buying in resources:

  1. The quality of resources should be of a much higher quality than what an average teacher could produce as part of their average working week.
  2. It doesn’t make financial sense for every teacher in the UK (and beyond) to produce what are in essence the same resources to cover the same criteria, for the same qualifications. Pooling resources and letting a content creation company produce these for all providers, and people then pay for what they need, on the surface seems to make financial sense. If we look at the non-technology analogy, each teacher doesn’t go and write their own text book, we buy a selection of core texts from publishers, and fill our libraries with them, the teacher then uses their skills to signpost to students the key pages and activities at the appropriate time during the course.

From a practical point, some organisations simply don’t have the skills and support mechanisms in house to support teachers to create the standards expected. Or if you have a teaching team that is very small, there may not be the capacity or skill within that team to develop the online elements, and in these cases buying in may become more attractive.

So, if an organisation chooses to purchase off the shelf resources, there are generally two options:

  1. Buy the resources outright with a single payment, and then own them forever.
  2. Pay an annual fee for the right to use the resources.
Image of a book case with lots of different coloured books

Resources

Method 1, is akin to buying books upfront, and is the easiest to account for and plan ahead (there are no unexpected increases in price in the future), however at some point in the future the resources will become out of date, either due to qualification changes, changes to the topic, or the technology used becoming defunct (e.g. Resources produced in Flash). This then requires further purchases down the line.

Method 2, will benefit from resources being constantly updated, but financially once you have used the resources for a few years, the provider will be able to increase the annual fee, so difficult to plan ahead, and overall the cost long term will become significant. Usually with the annual fee model, the resources will sit on their server, which means users either need different login details to their usual logins, or the resources need to come with an integration mechanism into the organisation VLE, (which some provide) however these are sometimes not as straight forward as you would expect, and the ways that the resources can be used may be restricted by this mechanism. Another problem is that quite often they will only work when online, which again isn’t ideal for teaching rooms that aren’t connected, or students wanting to work in an offline environment.

If an organisation is thinking of buying off the shelf packages, there are some considerations or questions to ask:

  1. Ask to see a sample of the resources before buying. Each provider of resources will have demo units or similar available, but these will be the best quality ones they have to offer. Ask to see a unit of your choosing, and make your judgement from that – you will be very surprised how much difference there is between the two at times. If they refuse to give you access to a unit of your choice, walk away – they are obviously embarrassed by the quality of that unit.
  2. If you are going for the annual licence option, check where the resources are actually stored, and what would happen if the publishing company went bust next week. The ideal scenario is for the resources to be hosted by a specialist hosting company, and one which has been paid for at least 12 months in advance. This way if the publishing company goes bust, you still have access to the resources for the duration of the contract.
  3. Check the accessibility of the resources – many of the resources being produced are sadly very poor accessibility wise, and because the resources will be ‘locked’ by the seller it will be almost impossible to adapt them – resulting in the teacher having to recreate all the resources again, which defeats the purpose of buying the resources in the first place.
  4. Check what format the resources are in. Any resources that are produced in flash or with flash elements are not going to work on iPhones, iPads, many Android devices and in the future possibly other devices, so flash based resources should be avoided altogether. If resources include other file types such as Word or PowerPoint these should also be provided in alternate formats (e.g. PDF, Open Office etc.) and if videos are included, these need to be tested on multiple device types and shouldn’t be excessively large.
  5. Check the subject accuracy of the resources. I recently reviewed some anatomy resources for the teaching of sport, and was horrified by the number of errors the resources contained even though the resources had been proof-read by teachers and endorsed by one of the major awarding bodies. I wasn’t specifically looking for errors, but these jumped out at me, so I expect there must have been many less obvious mistakes as well.

One disadvantage (which many don’t consider) of using the entire courses or units that can be purchased off the shelf, is you actually make it very hard to ever become ‘outstanding’ – as the term outstanding means ‘standing out’ from the rest. If you have bought such a course or unit, you are unlikely to stand out from all the other people who have bought the same course or unit. Obviously there are things that the teachers could do to enhance or enrich the use of these courses, to get up to outstanding level, but reality is that the attraction of these purchases, is managers can then reduce the amount of money spent on teachers time, and even if teachers have the desired amounts of time, many will find it very hard to enhance or enrich an already ‘complete’ unit or course.

And finally – make sure the right people in the organisations are making the decisions – e.g. the teachers need to be involved to make sure they are appropriate academicaly, technical people need to be involved to ensure they will fit into organisations systems/VLEs etc. and strategically the budget holder has to make the decision as to not just the initial purchase, but on going maintenance, updates, CPD requirements etc.

The next post in this series, will look at the considerations of not buying in external resources.

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: http://www.morguefile.com/archive/display/925347

#FELTAG – to buy or not buy resources?

In the last 12 months, one of the key discussion points in Further Education has been FELTAG – which when first released by the Government in June 2014 included the notion that all funded FE courses had to have a mandatory 10% online element in order to get any funding, and initially this was going to take effect as early as September 2015 – sending most FE providers into a blind panic as they frantically tried to meet this magical 10% element in a very short space of time, whilst also managing huge reductions in their core funding. One of the options that was available to FE providers, was to simply buy ‘off the shelf’ online courses or resources to meet this 10% element. When the FELTAG recommendations were first announced, one of the first noticeable consequences was the number of communications that came from various content creations companies to providers, trying to get them to purchase their wares.

As it turns out the Government confirmed in February 2015 that it has no plans to actually enforce this 10% mandatory element (making it an optional mandatory element?) – but there is still a need and expectation for providers to increase the amount of online learning in order to get the best ‘blend’ in order to meet the expectations of their learners – so there is still a case for looking into whether to buy ‘off the shelf’ content, or to develop content in house.

Image of a pile of money

money

I have worked with a few providers over the last few years, who have asked me to review the quality and suitability of various ‘off the shelf’ resources – and the range of quality between different offers is huge – with some sadly being very poor quality indeed, and others being much better quality but not necessarily in a format that fits into the existing infrastructure and systems in place. Some are ridiculously over priced for what they are, whereas others are more reasonable.

The decision of whether to buy or not to buy, is hugely significant for providers – getting the decision wrong could cost huge amounts of money, or looking at short term gains, may impact on long term options.

In my next two blog posts in the coming days I will be presenting the advantages and disadvantages of buying or not buying, and if buying what considerations and questions to be asking before making a financial decision.

My hope is to help providers to make informed decisions on this particular area of work.

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: http://www.morguefile.com/archive/display/847454

If you want to get FELTAG right – forget the 10%

This may seem like an odd title to a post, and I expect that some readers will find this post uneasy – but I feel that there is a need for a reality check here, and urge people to read the entire post before judging.

Anyone working in FE in the UK should be aware of the term FELTAG (Further Education Learning Technology Action Group) – who submitted a series of recommendations to Government to improve the quality of FE. There were many recommendations submitted, most were accepted (some with ammends) in the Government response but the one that has got everyone’s attention is the idea that all funded FE courses have to have 10% online to get any funding, and here lies the problem.

Speed Limit 10
Over the years I have run many training sessions or presentations on the notion of blended learning – and always start with an activity to define what we mean by blended learning. My definition is “The optimum mix of online and face to face delivery” for a particular situation. The key word there is the word ‘optimum’ – for some situations it may be 5% online, another maybe 25%, another 50% etc. There is no magic percentage that is the optimum value as every situation is different, so in only a very small number of scenarios is 10% going to be the optimum. What most FE providers are doing at the moment is scrabbling around desperately trying to get all of their courses to this magical 10% number, and as resources are so tight, there is no incentive or reason to go beyond the 10% – and this is what worries me. The purpose of FELTAG was to raise standards of education, and the report included many recommendations and actions covering the whole gambit of use of technology in teaching and learning – the 10% element was only one small part of it – however the term FELTAG has accidentally become synonymous with 10% and rather than being a quality improvement exercise it appears to have turned into a tick box activity driven by the funding mechanism that itself doesn’t appear to understand what online learning is or isn’t.

Following discussions on Twitter and other blogs, working with FE providers and talking to key individuals in this area it is clear to me that this has become the reality. Looking at the titles of various webinars and training courses being offered by different bodies, they all seem to focus on the 10% issue, rather than the potential quality issues, or potential financial gains issues.

I appreciate that most providers have small learning tech teams and many have never had, and still don’t have full SMT support – so this is a huge and real problem. My prediction for September 2015 is we will have lots of courses that do have the mandatory 10% online provision – but most of these will be of poor quality, with over stressed teachers, stability issues with the systems, and the 10% being an expensive tokenistic gesture that isn’t integrated into the whole teaching and learning process and culture. The other problem is that we don’t even know what 10% means – so some will create something that they think is 10% only to find out it isn’t, or others will go over the top investing too much time and effort artificially doing things, when in fact they may have already been meeting the 10% criteria.

So – what do I propose?

This brings me back to the title of the post. The best way to get this right (in my opinion) is to stop thinking about and talking about 10% – but instead to focus on identifying what the best mix of online and face to face each course would benefit from (and don’t try putting percentages against this). If we focus on this we will in almost all cases easily cover and surpass the 10% requirement, without it being an issue in itself. This approach also negates the problem of not knowing how big or where the financial goalposts are (and that will also keep moving) – if we provide something that is genuinely good, it doesn’t matter where the goalposts move to the provision will either be on target or easy to adapt slightly to get on target. If we aim for the magic 10% there is a risk we could miss altogether, and having to re-engineer something later on could be very expensive, and time consuming.

Firslty we need to make sure the snior managers are clear about what they are doing and why – there are various different models that can be employed when developing blended learning courses – and we need to get the right ones for the right purposes. We also need to ensure that we get staff buy in. Senior managers simply asking teaching staff to put 10% online (without any financial gain)  isn’t going to get staff buy in. A model where staff see reward for their efforts and benefits to them and the learners need to be found. Then we need to invest heavily in the staff work force – that has been identified on numerous occassions. There are plenty of opportunities available from the various support organisations involved, as well as many people like myself that has extensive experience of creating blended learning provision in FE and HE.

Some FE providers are shouting out that it isn’t possible to achieve any of this with the resources that they have – yes it may be difficult, but anything is possible if there is a desire and a will from the teaching staff to make it happen, and clear strategic leadership from above.

I have written this post as a ‘food for thought’ article. I hope that people don’t perceive this as a negative post – I am genuinely passionate about this area of work, and believe that great things can come from it, but I fear that at the moment, too many people are heading in the wrong direction – and a bit of feather ruffling will be benefical.

If any providers are interested in how I could help them with this area of work, then please get in touch via http://www.a6training.co.uk/contact.php


Image source: https://flic.kr/p/aXLEc