June 25, 2016

Brexit and online learning in Europe

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Image: The Millennium Report, 2016

Image: The Millennium Report, 2016

Little England triumphs

Well, Little England has triumphed at last. The votes in suburban and industrial England and Wales were enough to defeat Londoners, Scots and the Northern Irish. So not only can we expect the future dismantling of the European Union, we will also probably see the end of the United Kingdom. Poor Queen – she must feel sick as a parrot as she considers the consequences. Also the old, as always, punished the young. The young mainly wanted to be outward looking Europeans; the old outvoted them, forcing them to remain in Little England (unless, like I did, they can escape).

It was not a surprise to me. Right up to the closing of the voting, and despite a last day uplift in the Remain support in opinion polls, and despite the bookies and the smart money, I was convinced that Britain would leave. Like most referendums, it was driven by emotion, not logic, and for many Brits, when they got in the voting booth, their emotions would take over.

Freedom!

Punish the bastards (the bastards being ‘them’, the invisible but omniscient ‘elite’ who have got us into this mess.)

Back to the glory days when Britain ruled the world and England won football matches.

No more Frogs and Krauts telling us what to do.

No more invasion by Syrians and terrorists.

How predictable. How sad.

It is a disaster that could have been avoided. David Cameron is staying on for three months ‘to steady the ship.’ Sorry, Mr. Cameron, but the ship has already sunk, and it was you who pulled the plug when you thought a nice little referendum would get those pesky Euroskeptics in your party off your back. What a petty motivation for destroying not only a country but a continent.

Well, of course, it won’t be as bad as that, will it? The panic and shock will slowly dissipate, the money people will work out new ways to make money, and Putin won’t be nasty and invade the Baltic states, will he? People are resilient and will find a new way through.

So let’s look forward and see what the implications are for online learning in Europe, which is almost as important as the Euro nations soccer championship (will England be disqualified now)?

Then

In the 1990s, there wasn’t a lot of online learning happening in Europe, although there were several big open universities: the UK Open University was dominant, but there were also sizeable open universities in Spain, the Netherlands and Germany. In online learning, some Norwegian distance education institutes, such as NKI, were launching online courses. When EDEN, the European Distance Education Network, started in the early 1990s it was mainly dominated by the big open universities, but it began to expand its membership by dropping institutional membership and moving to individual membership. This was important in bringing in many new participants, some of whom were European leaders in online learning. But the UK OU was still the major player, even though it was relatively slow in moving to online learning.

At the same time, the European Commission had launched a number of major funding programs that focused on ICTs (information and communications technologies) in education, such as the DELTA program. These were often large, unwieldy projects that required participants from several countries, particularly from those countries that were struggling economically or were ‘new’ to the EU, and also required sometimes a minimum of three industrial partners. Although such projects often got bogged down in trying to balance the interests of all the participants, were often slowed down by stifling bureaucratic requirements from the EC, and one or two participants from more economically advanced countries ended up doing most of the work, these programs were useful for widening the expertise in the area of online and digital learning across a large number of member states and brought new players into the game. However, in the early 1990s there were only 12 or so member states.

Now

The most significant change has been the expansion to 28 states, incorporating most of the Eastern European countries that were part of the Soviet Union. The EC still has major programs that provide funding for ICTs in education projects (although digital is now the more favoured term). More importantly, many more countries all over Europe now have substantial experience in online learning, as was evident from the recent EDEN conference. Nevertheless, Britain is still a dominant force in this area and has been a major contributor to EC programs in online and digital learning.

Not only will the withdrawal of UK participants be a major blow for many of these European projects, but also UK universities and consultants in the field of online and digital learning will lose out on major funding opportunities and the opportunity to learn from working with European partners. This may not be as bad as in other areas of collaboration or business, because academics and educators will still go to international conferences and share experiences, but nevertheless there will be a net loss both for British and European online practitioners.

What went wrong?

There are people closer to the action who are better placed than I am, but here’s my two cents worth, anyway:

  • Europe got too big, too quickly. It was difficult enough to get consensus with 12 countries with relatively similar economic and social contexts, even if the languages were different. Expanding to 28 countries covering an immensely wide range of languages, cultures and above all, economic circumstances without a change to the overall governance/political model has led to gridlock in decision-making;
  • as a result, the European Union has failed to deal adequately with its three most important challenges: the recovery from the economic recession in 2008; the immigration crisis; and its relationship with Russia. It has showed weakness in responding to each of these admittedly difficult challenges, with negative implications for the average Joe and Joe-ess in Europe and Britain;
  • Britain too suffered badly from the economic recession. Most of its major banks went bankrupt and had to be bailed out with taxpayers’ money. Many of those bankers are still in place, earning almost obscene amounts of money. Although the economy has picked up since 2008, the British government has been running an austerity-focused economic policy, which hits hard unemployed and low income workers and families. Many working class people in the former industrial parts of England have been unemployed through five generations, since the devastation of UK manufacturing industries in the 1980s. Both of the two major political parties have been run until recently by ‘establishment’ figures from public school/Oxbridge backgrounds. A major theme in the run-up to the referendum was the rejection of advice from ‘experts’ (economists, politicians, international leaders and think tanks, the Bank of England) who were seen as an untrustworthy elite who benefit from the status quo. The class war is alive and strong in the UK and getting worse, as a result.
  • at the same time, fed by a viciously simplistic and racist tabloid press, many middle class Brits feel that they are no longer getting the respect they feel they deserve; the Empire has crumbled and their culture is being threatened by a wave of immigrants. England is already full. Last year, Britain, which would fit into the southern half of Ontario, and has a population of 60 million, took 360,000 immigrants, compared to the whole of Canada, who took 260,000. There are genuine fears that immigrant numbers will increase much more over the coming years, as the Middle East disintegrates further. The Leave proponents deliberately played on these fears.

So in this referendum, there was what we have also seen in the run-up to the USA presidential election: a weird alliance of what appear to be extreme right and extreme left wing voters rejecting and overwhelming the moderate, ‘rationale’ centre in politics. However, unless the genuine grievances of these groups are addressed, we will see similar so-called ‘irrational’ political upheavals in the future. In particular, the widening gap between rich and poor needs to be addressed or we will all end up victims to so-called ‘irrationality’.

 

Talking numbers about open publishing and online learning

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Screen shot from my blog site analytics today

Screen shot from today’s analytics page from my blog site

Please forgive me here for a little self-indulgence. By sheer coincidence, two statistics converged yesterday.

2 million blog post hits

First, I passed the 2 million mark for the number of hits on this web site. This is by no means a challenge to Justin Bieber or Donald Trump, or even Stephen Downes, but I think it is a reasonable accomplishment for a relatively serious blog devoted to rather lengthy posts about online learning and distance education.

The web site is just under eight years old, having started in July 2008, and currently is averaging about 35,000 hits a month (which is remarkable as I have been posting less than once a week over the past few months, thus defying the first rule of blogging – publish daily). However, the continued activity despite the lack of many new posts in the last year is particularly satisfying, because it means that the site is being used as a resource, a place to go to regularly for information on online learning and distance education.

The table below gives a list of the most popular posts, but it should be remembered that the older the post, the more hits it is likely to get:

All time hits 2

For instance, ‘Recommended graduate programs in e-learning’ and ‘What is Distance Education?’ were posted on the original web site when it first opened. The largest supplier of free online learning (posted in April, 2012) is ALISON, and the number of hits reflects potential students looking for (objective?) information about ALISON, especially what its certificates are worth. In this case, the comments from ALISON users are probably more valuable than the original article.

A short history of educational technology‘ is a much more interesting phenomenon, being posted as recently as December, 2014, as a draft for my online textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’. At the moment it is getting over 200 hits a day, and it appears that it is a set reading for one or more online courses.

On the other hand, ‘Can you teach real engineering at a distance?’ is seven years old, but is still very active from student comments, including yesterday. This post in particular reflects many potential students’ frustration with the lack of accredited online courses in engineering, especially in Canada.

What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs‘ is an interesting measure of the interest in MOOCs over time. Most of the hits came in the first year (August, 2012), although it is still averaging just under 200 hits a month, and 3,000 over the last year. However, in the last twelve months, ‘Comparing xMOOCs and cMOOCs: philosophy and practice‘, a draft for the book, has overtaken it with nearly 5,000 hits this year.

The data therefore suggests to me that the site is used as much by potential or actual students as by faculty and instructors – or at least it is [potential] students that drive the large numbers of hits.

And the best ever 3,190 hits in one day? Well, that was ironic. It was the day after I posted ‘Time to retire from online learning?‘, when I got almost 2,000 hits that day on that post. It’s been downhill (gently) ever since!

30,000 book downloads

Also yesterday ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ not only came out in a French version, but the English version has now passed more than 30,000 downloads of the book (18,003 from the BCcampus Open Textbook web site, and almost 12,000 from the Contact North web site).

Again, this isn’t the Da Vinci Code in best sellers, but these are downloads within a 15 month period for a 500+ page textbook aimed at faculty and instructors. My best-selling commercially published book aimed at faculty and instructors, ‘Effective Teaching with Technology in Higher Education’, published by Jossey Bass in 2003, never got close to 10,000 in sales.

Conclusions

So a lesson for writers: open, online publishing will almost certainly reach more readers than a commercial publication or an academic journal. Whether it will have as much influence will depend on other factors, such as judging the market, the quality of the book or paper, its timeliness, the need of the readers, and your prior experience in publishing. What open publishing will not bring you is direct income from the book, or promotion or advancement to an academic position, although that too may well change in the future.

For a more detailed discussion of whether open publishing is worthwhile, see ‘Writing an online, open textbook: is it worth it?’ Nothing that has happened in the last 12 months has made me want to change what I wrote then.

 

Un livre en ligne et ouvert: L’enseignment à l’ère numérique

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French version 2

La version française du livre Teaching in a Digital Age, intitulée L’enseignement à l’ère numérique, est maintenant offerte ici.
 
Je suis très content que le livre soit disponible en français pour les Francophones partout.
 
Je suis très reconnaissant envers Contact North | Contact Nord de fournir cette translation professionnelle.

 

French version of ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ now available

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French version 2

The French version of ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’, L’enseignement a l’ère numerique‘, is now available from here.

I am very grateful to Contact North|Contact Nord for providing this professional translation.

There is now also a version in Vietnamese, ‘Dạy học trong kỷ nguyên số‘, translated by Lê Trung Nghĩa of the Ministry of Education in Vietnam, available through Dropbox here.

Spanish version, translated by staff in the Faculty of Engineering, Universidad de Buenos Aires, is almost complete and will be available from the BCcampus open textbook site (as will all the translations). I will provide an announcement containing the url when it is available.

A Chinese version, translated by staff at the Beijing Open University, will be available in August, 2016.

A Portuguese version, being translated by ABED, the Brazilian Association of Distance Education, will be available in time for its Annual Congress in September, 2016.

Turkish version is currently under consideration. I am awaiting more details.

Please note: under the Creative Commons license of the book, anyone is free to translate all or any part of the book, provided it is not used for commercial purposes and I am acknowledged as the author. I am sure that without this license, the book would not have become available so quickly in so many languages. However, if you do decide to translate the book, please let me know, so I can track its use and provide updates.

 

Examining ethical and privacy issues surrounding learning analytics

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Image: SecurityCamExpert, 2013

Image: SecurityCamExpert, 2013

Drachsler, H. et al. (2016) Is Privacy a Show-stopper for Learning Analytics? A Review of Current Issues and Their Solutions Learning Analytics Review, no. 6, January 2016, ISSN: 2057-7494

About LACE

One of the most interesting sessions for me at last week’s EDEN conference in Budapest was a workshop run by Sally Reynolds of  ATiT in Brussels and Dai Griffiths of the University of Bolton, UK. They are both participants in a European Commission project called LACE (Learning Analytics Community Exchange).

The LACE web site states:

LACE partners are passionate about the opportunities afforded by current and future views of learning analytics (LA) and educational data mining (EDM) but we were concerned about missed opportunities and failing to realise value. The project aimed to integrate communities working on LA and EDM from schools, workplace and universities by sharing effective solutions to real problems.

There are a number of reviews and case studies of the use of learning analytics available from the web site, which, if you are interested in (or concerned) about the use of learning analytics, are well worth reading.

The EDEN workshop

The EDEN workshop focused on one of the reviews concerned with issues around ethics and privacy in the use of learning analytics, and in particular the use of big data.

I am reasonably familiar with the use of ‘small’ data for learning analytics, such as the use of institutional student data regarding the students in the courses I am teaching, or the analysis of participation in online discussions, both in quantitative and qualitative terms. I am less familiar with the large-scale use of data and especially how data collected via learning management or MOOC registration systems are or could be used to guide teaching and learning.

However, the focus of the workshop was specifically on ethical and privacy issues, based on the review quoted above, but nevertheless I learned a great deal about learning analytics in general through the workshop.

What is the concern?

This is best stated in the review article:

Once the Pandora’s Box of data availability has been opened, then individuals lose control of the data about them that have been harvested. They are unable to specify who has access to the data, and for what purpose, and may not be confident that the changes to the education system which result from learning analytics will be desirable. More generally, the lack of transparency in data collection and analysis exacerbates the fear of undermining privacy and personal information rights in society beyond the confines of education. The transport of data from one context to another can result in an unfair and unjustified discrimination against an individual.

In the review article, these concerns are exemplified by case studies covering schools, universities and the workplace. These concerns are summarized under the following headings:

  • privacy
  • informed consent and transparency in data collection
  • location and interpretation of data
  • data management and security
  • data ownership
  • possibility of error
  • role of knowing and obligation to act

There are in fact a number of guidelines regarding data collection and use that could be applied to learning analytics, such as the Nuremberg Code on research ethics, the OECD Privacy Framework, (both of which are general), or the JISC code of practice for learning analytics. However, the main challenge is that some proponents of learning analytics want to approach the issue in ways that are radically different from past data collection methods (like my ‘small’ data analysis). In particular they propose using random data collection then subsequently analysing it through data analysis algorithms to identify possible post-hoc applications and interpretations.

It could be argued that educational organizations have always collected data about students, such as registers of attendance, age, address and student grades. However, new technology, such as data trawling and the ability to combine data from completely different sources, as well as automated analysis, completely changes the game, raising the following questions:

  • who determines what data is collected and used within a learning management system?
  • who ensures the security of student (or instructor) data?
  • who controls access to student data?
  • who controls how the data is used?
  • who owns the data?

In particular, increasingly student (and instructor) data is being accessed, stored and used not just outside an institution, but even outside a particular country, and hence subject to laws (such as the U.S. Patriot Act) that do not apply in the country from which the data was collected.

Recommendations from the LACE working group

The LACE working group has developed an eight point checklist called DELICATE, ‘to support a new learner contract, as the basis for a trusted implementation of Learning Analytics.’

Delicate 2

For more on DELICATE see:

Drachsler, H. and Greller, W. (2016) Privacy and Learning Analytics – its a DELICATE issue Heerlen NL: The Open University of the Netherlands

Issues raised in the workshop

First it was pointed out that by today’s standards, most institutional data doesn’t qualify as ‘big data’. In education, what would constitute big data would for example be student information from the whole education system. The strategy would be to collect data about or from all students, then apply analysis that may well result in by-passing or even replacing institutions with alternative services. MOOC platforms are possibly the closest that come to this model, hence their potential for disruption. Nevertheless, even within an institution, it is important to develop policies and practices that take into account ethics and privacy when collecting and using data.

As in many workshops, we were divided into small groups to discuss some of these issues, with a small set of questions to guide the discussion. In my small group of five conference participants, none of the participants was in an institution that had a policy regarding ethics and privacy in the use of learning analytics (or if it existed, they were unaware of it).

There was a concern on our table that increasing amounts of student data around learning was accessible to external organizations (such as LMS software companies and social media organizations such as Facebook). In particular, there was a  concern that in reality, many technology decisions, such as choice of an institutional learning platform, were influenced strongly by the CIO, who may not take into sufficient account ethical and privacy concerns when negotiating agreements, or even by students themselves, who are often unaware of the implications of data collection and use by technology providers.

Our table ended by suggesting that every post-secondary institution should establish a small data ethics/privacy committee that would include, if available, someone who is a specialist in data ethics and privacy, and representatives of faculty and students, as well as the CIO, to implement and oversee policy in this area.

This was an excellent workshop that tried to find solutions that combine a balance between the need to track learner behaviour and privacy and ethical issues.

Over to you

Some questions for you:

  • is your institution using learning analytics – or considering it
  • if so, does your institution have a policy or process for monitoring data ethics and privacy issues?
  • is this really a lot of fuss over nothing?

I’d love to hear from you on this.

EDEN 2016: Re-imagining Learning Environments

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Pesti Vigadó, where the conference dinner was held

Pesti Vigadó Concert Hall, where the conference dinner was held

The EDEN conference

I have just attended the annual conference of the European Distance and E-Learning Network in Budapest, Hungary.

EDEN is one of my favourite conferences because it always has a lot of interesting people attending and it is a quick way for me to stay abreast of what is happening in European online and distance learning. I provide here an overall report on the conference, but I will do a couple of other more detailed posts on the sessions I found particularly interesting.

There were just under 300 participants. My overall impression is that online and open learning are well and strong in Europe, and is now widespread. When I first started to come to EDEN conferences in the early 1990s, there were only two or three main players, but this year there were contributions from almost every European country. With the growth of online and open learning, there are many new people each year joining the field, coming from very diverse backgrounds. EDEN provides a pan-European opportunity to enable newcomers to learn about some of the basic principles and prior research and knowledge in the field, as well as allowing for the sharing of experience and networking, and reporting new trends and developments in online and open learning.

I was the opening keynote speaker, and talked about building effective learning environments, based on my chapter in Teaching in a Digital Age. I also gave the wrap-up to the conference, on which this post is based.

A concert at the Liszt Academy of Music

A concert at the Liszt Academy of Music

Policy, planning and management

This year there was a welcome number of contributions that focused on policy and management of online, open and distance learning.

Yves Punie of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre’s Institute for Prospective Technological Skills reported that 70 million Europeans lacked basic literacy and numeracy skills, 24% had no upper secondary education and 45% have insufficient digital literacy skills, although 90% of jobs in Europe will require some sort of ICT skills. The Institute has developed a list of key digital competencies. He noted that while 21% of universities in Europe are now offering MOOCs, most have no overall strategy for open education.

George Ubachs of the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities in his presentation on The Changing Pedagogical Landscape offered an interesting vision for universities that emphasised:

  • personalized teaching and learning
  • small scale, intensive education
  • rich learning environments
  • open-ness and flexibility
  • networked education and mobility

Leslie Wilson of the European University Association commented that:

MOOCs have forced Vice Chancellors to focus on teaching and learning

This is probably a true if sad statement.

I was particularly impressed by Melissa Highton’s report on the open learning strategy of Edinburgh University. It is a highly ranked, old research university in Scotland that has aligned its approach to open education to the university’s core mission. She said:

Not being open is a risk and not being open costs us money.

Laureate University is a global private, for-profit university with over one million enrolments, and with campuses in Europe as well as North America. The leadership at Laureate has decided that the whole system will move from largely face-to-face teaching to blended learning. Alan Noghiu described the strategy that is being used and the challenges the organization is facing in implementing the strategy.

Finally, Alan Tait reported on a study by the International Council for Distance Education (ICDE) on student success factors, which identified the following as critical to student success:

  • pre-study information, advice, guidance and admission;
  • curriculum or programme design that matches the needs of students;
  • intervention at key points and in response to student need;
  • assessment to support learning as well as to judge achievement;
  • individualised and personalised systems of support to students;
  • information and logistical systems that communicate between all relevant participants in the system;
  • overall managing for student success.

This seems to me to be a list that proponents of MOOCs should bear in mind, as well as those offering more formal qualifications at a distance.

The use of multimedia and emerging technologies

Susan Aldridge of Drexel University presented some very interesting examples of educational uses of virtual reality, augmented reality, serious games and holography, including examples used in forensic investigation, meteorology, and medicine. One of the augmented reality tools she demonstrated, Aurasma, is free.

Danny Arati of Intel mentioned the University of Nottingham’s The Periodic Table of Videos, where each element in the period table has a short video about it.

The Periodic Table of Videos, University of Nottingham

The Periodic Table of Videos, University of Nottingham

MOOCs and online learning

I was surprised at how much importance European institutions are still giving to MOOCs. There were by far more papers on MOOCs than on credit-based online learning or even blended learning. Even the Oxford debate this year was on the following motion:

We Should Focus in the Short Term More on MOOCs than on OER

I was relieved when the motion was resoundingly defeated, although I am still a little disheartened that open education is still mainly focused on MOOCs and OERs, rather than on the broader concept of open textbooks, open research, and open data. It was noted that MOOCs are a product while open education is a movement, and it is important not to lose the idea that open education is as much about social justice and equity as it is about technology, as was pointed out by one of the participants, Ronald McIntyre.

Learning analytics

There was an excellent workshop organised by Sally Reynolds and Dai Griffiths from the European Commission funded LACE project: Learning Analytics Community Exchange. The workshop focused on privacy and ethics issues that arise from the use of learning analytics.

This is such an important topic that I will do a full blog post on it later. In the meantime, if you are interested in this topic, see the LACE report: Is Privacy a Show-stopper for Learning Analytics? A Review of Current Issues and their Solutions.

The foyer of the Gresham Hotel

The foyer of the Gresham Hotel

Bits and Pieces

There were several other interesting activities at the conference that are worth reporting:

Pre-conference workshop for young scholars. This was an interesting forum where editors of three of the journals in the field discussed with young (or more accurately, new) scholars how to get published.

Book and wine session This informal late evening session provided an opportunity for participants to share their reviews of interesting books. This is an event that could be expanded to cover both ‘classics’ in the field, as well as books on new developments.

Posters There were about a dozen posters. Again, I would like to see more posters at conferences such as this. A well designed poster can be read in a couple of minutes and impart as much if not more information than a 20 minute oral presentation, and can be seen by everyone at the conference, unlike a presentation at a parallel session, some of which, such as the horrible ‘speed-dating’ sessions, resembled having a fire hose of information turned on you – or am I just a visual learner?

Given that so many new people are moving into online and open learning all the time, much more needs to be done at conferences such as this to encourage sessions where prior knowledge and best practices are brought to the attention of new participants.

Conclusions

Overall, this was another excellent conference from EDEN in a wonderful location (it is the first time I have been immersed into Turkish baths). The next one will be next year in Jönköping, southern Sweden.

Art Nouveau stained glass windows at the Hotel Gellert

Art Nouveau stained glass windows at the Hotel Gellert

All photos: Tony Bates

An excellent guide to multimedia course design

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© University of Waterloo, 2016

© University of Waterloo, 2016

Centre for Extended Learning (2016) How do we create useful online learning experiences? Waterloo ON: University of Waterloo

The University of Waterloo’s Centre for Extended Learning has combined Peter Morville’s user experience (UX) honeycomb and Richard Mayer’s theory and research on the use of multimedia for learning, to create a well-designed set of guidelines for online course design. This should be compulsory reading/viewing for all instructors moving into online learning.

Thanks to Naza Djafarova, Director, Digital Education Strategies, The Chang School of Continuing Education, Ryerson University, for directing me to this invaluable resource.

Average speed 2

 

Who has the most expensive higher education system for students?

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Tuition fees and student debt (source: Sutton Trust)

Tuition fees and student debt (source: Sutton Trust)

Kirby, P. (2016) Degrees of Debt: Funding and finance for undergraduates in Anglophone countries London, UK: The Sutton Trust

The answer, in a comparison between the major anglophone nations of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland (NI), USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (NZ) is clearly: England. Graduates from English universities will leave with twice the debt of even private universities in the USA (£44,500 compared with the equivalent of £29,000 for for-profit universities in the USA and around £20,000 for public and private non-profits). Scotland will have the lowest average student debt (around £10,000), followed by Canada.

A good degree of caution is needed in interpreting these results. Tuition fees can vary considerably, both within countries (e.g. Canada) and between different kinds of institution in the same country (e.g. the USA). Student debt is influenced not just by the level of tuition fees but also by the availability of grants to students, parental contributions, and the availability of part-time work while studying. There are always problems with converting from several different currencies into one standard currency (in this case the U.K £). Debt also is influenced by the economic benefits following from graduation; debt is much more serious if there are few well-paying jobs after graduation. Canadian students may not feel this way, but they are fortunate in that within the first 10 years of graduating their annual income will average twice their total student debt, making repayment more manageable than in all the other countries except Scotland.

Main conclusions

Even allowing for understandable methodological difficulties, the differences are stark, and the consequences significant. These are best described by the report’s own main conclusions:

  • the average English student faces the highest levels of graduate debt within the major anglophone countries;   
  • however, the vast majority of English students’ study-related debt is held by the state, which has relatively clear repayment conditions compared to other Anglophone countries;
  • as a result [of the high tuition fees], the number  of  part-time  and  mature  students  enrolling  at  UK  institutions  across  recent years has dropped precipitously
  • while full-time undergraduate university enrolment [in England] has recovered since the imposition of £9,000 fees in 2012, university needs to remain a viable option for everyone, especially those from poorer backgrounds, who are   disproportionately under-represented across the UK professional landscape.

Comment

I am coming to the end of ten days spent in England, talking to friends who include an experienced primary school headmistress, and family who include two professors at English universities, two grandsons about to go to university, and two nieces who have recently completed their university studies. This is not a representative sample, but all week I have been hearing a tale of woe about public education in England.

The current Conservative government seems to be ideologically driven towards the privatisation of public education in England. Government funding for universities has been replaced by tuition fees, and the government wants to introduce market competition between schools and also between universities in the belief that this will drive up ‘quality’. Nevertheless there is no empirical evidence in the UK that shows that students from academies (which are replacing local government-run schools) or institutional competition through tuition pricing in universities is leading to better learning outcomes.

The Conservatives seem to have a completely wrong concept of education, based on set curricula, repeated testing of content, highly selective ‘weeding out’ of students who do not fit this paradigm, and governance by unelected trusts or corporations, a model of education that is clearly influenced by the British public boarding school system from which most of the Conservative government ministers have graduated. The current English education system is in a time warp that seems to belong more to the 1920s than the 2020s.

The results of these government policies have been high levels of stress and anxiety for school children in particular, a fundamental weakening (as intended) of the concept of public education, accompanied by a stagnant economy which is barely above the level following the economic recession of 2008. Could it be that English productivity and innovation are suffering as a result of these misguided educational policies?

Culture and effective online learning environments

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Learning environment 2

Figure A 1 from the original version of ‘Teaching at a Distance’

Over the last two months I have done a couple of workshops on building an effective learning environment, based on Appendix 1 of my online, open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. I identified the following as critical components of an effective learning environment:

  • learner characteristics
  • content
  • skills
  • learner support
  • resources
  • assessment

These workshops have reinforced my feeling that I originally excluded a critical component.

The importance of culture

Within every learning environment there is a prevailing culture that influences all the other components. In most learning environments, culture is often taken for granted or may be even beyond the consciousness of learners or even teachers. I will try to show why faculty, instructors and teachers should pay special attention to cultural factors, so that they can make conscious decisions about how the different components of a learning environment are implemented. Although the concept of culture may seem a little abstract at this stage, I will show how critical it is for designing an effective online learning environment,

Defining culture

I define culture as

the dominant values and beliefs that influence decision-making.

The choice of content, the skills and attitudes that are promoted, the relationship between instructors and students, and many other aspects of a learning environment, will all be deeply influenced by the prevailing culture of an institution or class (used to mean any grouping of students and a teacher). Thus in a learning environment, every one of the components I described will be influenced by the dominant culture.

For instance, parents tend to place their children in schools that reflect their owns values and beliefs, and so the characteristics of learners in that school will also often be influenced by the culture not only of their parents but also of their school. This is one of the many ways that culture can be self-reinforcing.

Identifying cultures

I first noticed the impact of different cultures many years ago, when I was doing research in the U.K. on the administration of large comprehensive (high) schools. Given that these schools had deliberately been created by a left-of-centre government in Britain in the 1960s to provide equal access to secondary education for all, and that these schools had many things in common (their size, their curricula, the idea that every student should have the same educational opportunities) one would have expected that they all would have had a similar prevailing culture. However, I visited over 50 such schools to collect information on the how they were managed and the key issues they faced, and every one was different.

Some were created from formerly highly selective grammar schools, and operated on a strict system of sorting students by tests, so that successful students would go up a level and the weakest students would drop down a level, in order to identify the best prospects for university. Here the dominant value was academic excellence.

Some schools were single sex (I am still puzzled by how a school segregated by sex could be considered ‘comprehensive’). One of the key objectives of a girls’ school I visited was to teach girls about ‘poise’. (This led to a very confused miscommunication between me and the headmistress, as I thought she had said ‘boys’.) Here the dominant value was on developing  ‘ladylike qualities’.

Others were inner city schools, where the focus was often on bringing the best out of each child, whatever their abilities. In such schools, each class would contain children with as wide a range of abilities as possible, but they were often rowdy, raucous places in comparison to the more elite-oriented institutions. Here the emphasis was on inclusiveness and equal opportunity.

The differing cultures of each of these schools was so strong I could sometimes detect it just by walking in the door, by the way students reacted with staff and each other in the corridors, or even by the way the students walked (or ran).

Culture and learning environments

Whether you consider culture to be a good or bad influence in a learning environment will depend on whether you share or reject the underlying values and beliefs of the dominant culture. Residential schools in Canada into which aboriginal children were often forcibly placed are a prime example of how culture drives the way schools operate.

The main purpose of such schools was deliberately to destroy aboriginal cultures and replace them with a religious-influenced Western culture. In these schools children were punished for being what they were. In such schools, all the other components of their learning environment were used to reinforce the dominant culture that was being imposed.

Although the outcomes for most children that attended these schools have turned out to be disastrous, those responsible (state and church working together) truly believed they were doing the right thing. We are still struggling in Canada to ‘do the right thing’ for aboriginal education, but any successful solution must take into account aboriginal cultures, as well as the surrounding predominant ‘Western’ culture.

Culture is perhaps more nebulous in higher education institutions, but it is still a powerful influence, differing not just between institutions but often between academic departments within the same institution.

Culture and new learning environments

Because prevailing cultures are often so dominant, they are very difficult to change. It is particularly difficult for a single individual to change a dominant culture. Even charismatic leaders will struggle, as many university presidents have found.

However, as new technologies allow us to develop new learning environments, instructors now have a rare opportunity consciously to create a culture that can support those values and beliefs that they consider to be important for today’s learners.

For instance, in an online learning environment, I consciously attempt to create a culture that reflects the following:

  • mutual respect (between instructor and students, and especially between students)
  • open-ness to differing views and opinions
  • evidence-based argument and reasoning
  • making learning engaging and fun
  • making explicit and encouraging the underlying values and epistemology of a subject discipline
  • transparency in assessment (e.g. rubrics and criteria)
  • recognition of and respect for the personalities of each student in the class
  • collaboration and mutual support.

The above cultural elements of course reflect my beliefs and values; yours may well be different. However, it is important that you are aware of your beliefs and values, so that you can design the learning environment in a way that best supports them.

You may also consider these cultural elements to be more like learning outcomes but I disagree. These cultural elements are broader and more general, and reflect what I believe are really necessary conditions for building an effective learning environment in a digital age.

Lastly you may question the right of an instructor to impose their personal cultural conditions on a learning environment. For myself, I have no problems with this. As a subject expert or professional in teaching, you are usually in a better position than learners to know the learning requirements and the cultural elements that will best achieve these. In any case, if you believe that learners should have more say in determining the culture in which they learn, that too is your choice and could be accommodated within the culture.

Summary

Culture is a critical component of any learning environment. It is important to be aware of the influence of culture within any particular learning context, and to try and shape that culture as much as possible towards supporting the kind of learning environment that you believe will be most effective. However, changing a pre-existing, dominant culture is very difficult. Nevertheless, new technologies enable new learning environments to be developed, and thus provide an opportunity to develop the kind of culture within that learning environment that will best serve your learners.

However, in every learning environment there will be cultural elements that prevail through all components, which is why I have added culture as a background to all the components of a learning environment in the graphic below.

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Questions

  1. Do you agree with my definition of ‘culture’ as used in describing an effective learning environment? If not, how would you define it? Would you use another term for what I am discussing?
  2. Can you describe the culture of the institution in which you work? What are its prime characteristics or goals? Or are there many cultures?
  3. Can you describe the culture within your own class or classes? What do you ‘inherit’ and what can you create or change?
  4. Do you share my views on the importance of understanding the culture within a learning environment? Or is culture something a teacher should/can ignore?
  5. What would be the ideal culture for your classes/teaching? How could you foster or create such a culture?

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The Atlantic - not much to see: one ship in 12 days!

The Atlantic – not much to see except a lot of water: one ship in 12 days!

I have done no blogging over the last month or so as my wife and I have been taking a long vacation which included a spell of 12 days without any Internet connection while I was sailing in a small ship across the Atlantic from San Juan in Puerto Rico to Malaga in Spain. The rest of the time has been spent in Seville in Spain, Paris, France, and ending in England, where I am visiting family.

I found to my astonishment that I could manage quite well without being on the Internet – and more astonishingly, that the world was even better able to manage without me. So I’m assuming you haven’t missed me. However, I am about to restart blogging, with a post about the importance of culture in building an effective learning environment immediately following this post.

In the meantime, as much for my pleasure as yours, here are a few illustrated highlights of the trip, which was a 70th birthday present for my wife.

Sea Dream II: 20 passengers on a repositioning cruise from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean

Sea Dream II: 20 passengers on a repositioning cruise from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean

 

Sailing past Castillo San Felipe del Morro, San Juan

Sailing past Castillo San Felipe del Morro, San Juan

 

Malaga, Spain

Malaga, Spain

 

Seville's cathedral, Santa Maria de la Sede

Seville’s cathedral, Santa Maria de la Sede

 

Ceramics for sale, Cordoba

Ceramics for sale, Cordoba

 

Gardes Republicaines, Paris

Gardes Republicaines, Paris

Ah, well, it was nice while it lasted. The next post will be much more serious, on culture and learning environments.

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