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/

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.

Evolution not Revolution of Education

I was recently introduced to this excellent video clip on YouTube which brilliantly portrays a very simple education message that seems to be being missed over and over again. The message being:

Individual technologies will not revolutionise education, however high quality, enthusiastic teachers who can use the technologies appropriately will help education evolve.

Enjoy the video…

Technology over the years, has allowed education to evolve and to adapt to the benefits that the technology brings, however it doesn’t and won’t ever replace the role of a good teacher. As mentioned in the video, every time a new technology comes along, those people responsible for promoting it (e.g. the people selling the technology), often fall into the trap of claiming that this new technology will ‘revolutionise’ education – and sadly many senior managers have been duped into believing this – and believing that putting their hands in their pockets and (often unstrategically) throwing money will solve all their ills.

It is often said that, and I will say again here, that technology in the hands of a poor (or no) teacher will make the education experience worse. Technology in the hands of a good teacher may make the experience better. The key here being the quality of the teacher. In investment terms we need to invest more in the staff using the tools, rather than the tools themselves – if we do this then education can naturally evolve.

Within Further Education in the UK, I am seeing a very varied response from organisations to the challenges that FELTAG brings – many are going to throw tokenistic amounts of money into trying to buy a solution – others are simply asking the already overworked teachers to do even more work in their own time to solve the problem, and then a few are realising that FELTAG is all about and requires high levels of senior manager joined up thinking and strategic leadership. If we look at the use of technology as evolution rather than revolution, that alone make the problem and challenge much simpler to comprehend and act upon – and is a good starting foundation for this area of work.

If you are serious about blended learning – give teachers a mobile phone

In 2002 when I was working as an FE/HE lecturer at a college, the team leader made a decision to provide all staff in the team with mobile phones. The team in question was a PE and Sport team, which due to the nature of the subject, we were often teaching on the field, in the sports hall or at non-college facilities. Health and Safety had insisted that when in these locations the teacher had to carry a mobile phone – so we had a bank of (I think) 4 such phones for this purpose – but logistically this was a nightmare. No-one took ownership of the phones, so they weren’t set up for individuals with useful numbers stored in memory – they were often not charged, and the mechanism of having to return phones after the session (when you didn’t always go straight back to the college after a session), was a nightmare, as well as someone having to co-ordinate a booking system to make sure staff took the right phone, to make the logistics work.

So to partly overcome this problem, and to try and improve communication within the team (which had expanded so much we now occupied 4 staff rooms rather than 1) – the team leader managed to argue the case to provide all staff with a mobile phone. At first it sounded very expensive, but the college managed to get a deal with their provider, so the handsets themselves were quite cheap, and the package was basically a pay as you go – but at a reduced rate due to the number of devices. Any private phone calls that staff made – they paid for themselves – and all in all this was a highly successful model of working.

What we realised very quickly after deploying this model, was because these were work mobile phones, we could pass the number onto students. This had numerous advantages:

  • If a student was running late due to traffic, bus broken down etc. They could text the tutor with an apology/explanation – which saved you disrupting the class to deal with their late arrival. They could now just sneak in, without the tutor having to stop.
  • If a student wasn’t understanding part of an assignment – they could either text or call – even out of hours. The beauty of a work mobile phone was I (as the tutor) had the choice as to whether I wanted to take that call, or to ignore it. If I was happy to take the call, and I could help the student, this would probably save me (as the tutor) time in the long run, as the assignment would be quicker and easier to mark, if it had been completed the way I had wanted it.
  • Logistically – if for example a venue changed at short notice – we had various mechanisms to get messages to students (email, VLE, SMS bulk messaging system, notice board) but we didn’t have a mechanism for the students to easily reply to these messages to enter a dialogue. Having the mobile phone in our possession meant we could pick up these queries even when not at our desks.
  • There are then the numerous teaching and learning things that we can do with mobiles (which I cannot cover here, but have discussed previously on this blog).

In 2002 I knew that our team was ahead of the game in this way of thinking, but I thought that within a few years this would be norm, it horrifies me that in 2014 with the cost of mobile telephony being as cheap as it is – hardly any institutions provide their teaching staff with mobile phones. We waste huge amounts of money setting up complex landline based systems with a phone on a desk, then ask teaching staff to spend 28+ hours a week teaching – not at their desk. They come back from a 5 or 6 hour stint in classrooms at various locations, to find not just a mountain of emails, but also half a dozen voicemail messages from parents, students, other colleges etc. all needing a response a few hours ago – and now they have to spend the next 45 minutes trying to chase things up. Had they been able to take the call in the 10 minute gap they had between lessons – the issue could have been resolved quickly and instantly which is better for them and better for the students.

As FE and HE institutions look to increase the amounts of online learning within the provision – one part of being an online tutor is we need to have as many methods of communication between student and tutor as possible – as different students will have different preferences as to how they communicate. Not all will like using email, and even less will want to use the inbuilt communication tools within the VLE. I recently worked with a college that conducted a survey asking learners what their preferred method of communication was, and as I expected – SMS (texting) still came out as the learners preferred method of communication. For them it is cheap (most contracts will offer at least 2000 text per month), it is quick, and they have a record of the conversation in their phone. When we offer online learning we need to provide students with the ability to communicate by phone (and a proper number not a 08 number to a switchboard that costs the learner), email, and SMS as a minimum.

We don’t have to provide top of the range phones. A basic mobile that does calls and texts would actually suffice, and cost hardly anything – although for a little extra you could get a basic Smartphone which would then cover the email, VLE and Skype communication options as well.

If teams are unsure how to fund such an initiative – here is an idea: Most teams that I talk to have weekly meetings, that last at least an hour. If we assume that the staff time at that meeting is worth (estimating low here) £10 per person per hour – why not agree that in the first week of each month, there is no meeting. We could then get a contract on a basic Smartphone for £7.50 per month, leaving £2.50 per month spare to cover any out of contract calls, or data usage. If there is any really important information that staff needed to get at the missed meeting – why not write this up as a summary and send to the team to read on their new mobile phones.

As colleges start to seriously look at elements of online learning – the provision to staff of mobile phones is the easiest, and cheapest thing we can do – the efficiency benefits it brings, easily outweighs the costs, and should be a no-brainer for management to see and action. I hope that in the coming months and years there is a wake up in the sector that paying lots of money to tie a phone to a desk that a tutor is hardly ever at – is absurd, whereas spending money to provide a communication mechanism that follows the tutor around, is what students and tutors want, will increase efficiency and staff morale, improves health and safety and is an essential thing that needs to happen.

If anyone would like to discuss further then please comment below, or via my work mobile phone 07922115678.

Using headphones to take photos with iPad or iPhone

I recently learnt a little known iPad/iPhone trick – that is really useful, especially for people using an iPad in a teaching and learning situation.
Using headphones to take a photo with iPad
If you have a newish headphone set that has a volume control on the headphones – then this can be used to take a photo or video on the iPad. Pressing the volume down button on the headphones – will have the same effect as pressing the button on the screen when in the default camera app.

There are a few uses of using this technique as follows:

  • If I am creating a video of myself (e.g. introducing a topic to learners) – I can start and stop the video with my headphones, which are out of site of the camera – without having to lean forward and (visibly) touch the screen.
  • If I am carrying out movement analysis in a sports setting, and I have set my iPad up on a tripod (see previous blog post on this topic) – if I touch the screen to start the recording – I risk wobbling the set-up, which reduces the quality of the video. By using the headphones there is no wobble in the system.
  • Again if the iPad is on a tripod and I am operating the taking of the photos/videos – by using the headphones, I can do this without having to look at the device – which means I can keep my full attention on the class. If I am pressing the button on the screen, I have to momentarily take my attention away from the class, potentially missing something important.
  • If working outdoors in the cold, it is possible to operate the camera with gloves on.
  • If working in certain environments such as a workshop, kitchen, farmyard – it is possible to operate the camera even without fully clean hands. At the end of the session you can wipe the controls of the headphones clean.
  • If working with disabled learners, the processing of holding the device, and looking at the screen, and pointing in the right direction, and then taking the photo can be tricky for some, often resulting in movement of the device as the on-screen button is pressed. By using the headphones (and possibly a tripod) we can reduce this effect. This won’t work for all – some will find the on-screen button easier to manage, but others will find the headphones option easy to control.

There will be many other uses that I haven’t listed here (maybe people will comment if they can think of any).

Reflections on Using tablets in FE and HE assessment event

This blog post is an example of how a blog can be used for reflective practice. I am going to reflect on a training session that I recently ran, and use this reflective practice to help me improve the session for the future and help with my planning of other similar sessions.

Image of Dave Foord

Self Reflection

On Friday 28th March 2014 I ran the first FE/HE session for The Tablet Academy at Lougborough University. The session was designed to look at the use of tablet devices in assessment, and attracted 8 people from across the country.

There are lots of different people, companies and organisations offering tablet training at the moment, of varying quality and varying price (and no direct correlation between the two), so I was keen that I offered something different, something more than the very easy “look at me and how clever I am with an iPad” type session, that yes can be inspiring, but often doesn’t give people a chance to unpick bigger issues.

Therefore the main focus of the day, was to try to get the attendees to think openly about the use of tablet devices in assessment, including the issues that may arise, and not just the positives that can be brought. We also made the decision to focus on BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) rather than specifying a particular platform (e.g. iPads).

The structure of the day was:

  1. Introduction presentation.
  2. Exploring options of how tablets can be used in education.
  3. Designing, completing, then assessing an assessed activity with tablets.
  4. Bringing it all together.

Here is my reflection on each part:

Introduction presentation

I created a short presentation that was designed to set the scene, and to try to create the mindset of not using tablets to replace laptops, but to look at what tablets do that laptops cannot, and how this can be used beneficially in assessment. On reflection, I should have spent less time on this point and more time demonstrating options of what is possible with tablets. I didn’t want to spoil the next activity by giving the attendees the answers to the tasks I was about to set them, but some of the the attendees would have benefited from such examples to help make the rest of the day less abstract.

Exploring options of how tablets can be used in education

We had allocated a significant amount of time (over 2 hours) to this part of the day, which was an opportunity for attendees to explore different options of how tablet devices can be used in assessment. Because each person would have different organisational needs, roles and devices, I created 7 separate tasks (challenges) for them to look at. Each task had some background information, then a set of questions/activities for them to work through which would hopefully guide them through an exploration of that topic, with me facilitating them to unpick some of the issues. I estimated each topic to take about 30 minutes so hoped that people could explore 4 or 5 of the options in the allotted time. As it turned out the tasks took longer than I anticipated, so they only managed to cover 2 of the tasks, which was a shame. For future events, there are various options:

  1. I could shorten each topic, but then have a section for each topic which is titled “further exploration” or similar – so they could continue exploring at a later day.
  2. I could have sent attendees some pre course information so they could look at the options and possibly start some of the tasks (even if they only downloaded any required apps, and created accounts where required on them – which would have saved time).
  3. I could have been more draconian with the time keeping, forcing them to change topics if they spent more than say 40 minutes on any topic. I am not a big fan of this idea, as I need attendees to be comfortable with their explorations, and it is more beneficial for them to unpick a smaller number of options well, rather than more options badly.
  4. If I increased the time of the introduction, to include a quick demo of each idea, this would then have saved attendees time when exploring these options.

Having jotted down these possible options, I think points 1,2 and 4 above could be used together to improve this part of the session, and is what I will do next time.

Designing, completing, then assessing an assessed activity with tablets

This part of the day worked really well. Working in pairs, each pair had 30 minutes to design a tablet enabled assessable activity. They would then share this with a different pair. Each pair then had 30 minutes to complete the task set by someone else, after which they returned the work to the original pair, who had a further 30 minutes to assess and give feedback.
For this activity I was very strict with the timings, using a countdown timer on an iPad to keep me and the group focused. By setting a very specific and challenging time helped to keep people on task, and stopped the afternoon from ‘drifting’. Attendees very much got into the spirit of this activity, they had a lot of fun (which is good), they were imaginative (which was the intention) and they uncovered a few problems with the logistics of actually getting the task to the other people. The main reflection (which was also echoed by the participants feedback) was they didn’t need 30 minutes to assess the work, so could shorten this easily to 15 or even 10 minutes, apart from that I would keep this part of her he day the same.

Bringing it all together

As with any good training session, it is important that there is a chance to reflect and regroup at the end, and some form of identified action for people to do next. For this I set the task of asking people to identify the 5 Ws – Why, What, When, How, and Who for them to identify a small step that they were going to take to move their organisation forward in using tablet devices in the process of assessment. After the slightly pressurised previous 90 minutes as they raced against the clock, this made for a useful reflecting and refocusing activity. We then had some general discussions and used Socrative as a tool to reflect on the day in general.

Looking at the feedback provided by the attendees all bar one were very satisfied with the day, with some highlighting a few of the points I have made above. A few said they would have preferred the day to be platform specific (e.g. Just iPad, or just Microsoft) rather than BYOD, and a few wanted to see more examples of good practice.

From my perspective, I wanted the day to be a chance for people to unpick the real issues around using tablets for assessment, and as such I knew that people would encounter certain problems during the day, which was good, as better for them to encounter them here rather than with real assessments, however these few problems may have been perceived as outweighing the benefits of using tablet devices, which wasn’t my intention. The biggest problem that people encountered was the BYOD issue – of working with ideas that work across all platforms. Many thought Google Docs would be a good option, but discovered that these didn’t work well on iPads and sharing them was more complicated than expected. I tried to reinforce the point that in reality you use the tablet devices when they are most appropriate and use something else when not appropriate, e.g. It is perfectly acceptable for a member of staff to use a computer to create the assessment, the student to use and tablet to complete it and the tutor to use a computer to mark it.

My thanks go to the staff at Loughborough University for their support, in particular Charles Shields and Farzana Khandia.