May 132015
 

Today I am attending Holyrood Connect’s Learning Through Technology event in Glasgow. This is Day Two of the event and I plan to liveblog talks etc. that I attend today.

Welcome and introduction by the Chair – Mark Stephen, Journalist and Broadcaster

Session 1: Planning and leading the digitisation of learning and teaching

University Digital Education Comes of Age – Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea, Principal & Vice-Chancellor, University of Edinburgh

I want to start with an iconic image for us at the University of Edinburgh – an image on the Masters that we give in Digital Education, and this is a student graduating. It is an online masters, in how to teach online. The students who graduate from that programme can either come along in person in McEwan Hall, or they can graduate virtually in real time – graduating electronically. Last year in the graduation season something very interesting happened – a student graduated in person with his iPad so that he graduated in person and electronically… So those online could see him graduate twice. If you have a serious interest in this area do look at our Online Masters in Digital Education or the MOOC that derives from it…

It is always good to remind ourselves of the history here. Computers really came about in the 1940s as part of code breaking. Vannevar Bush wrote the essay “As we may think” which is really the first essay to pose how we might use computing. We see Crowder’s Branching theory in the 1950s (which still powers modern tools like Scholar), Pask’s Conversation Theory work in the 1950s. Then in the 1960s Smallwood wrote the first self-improving computers; Papert looked at self-expression and the visual language Scratch very much came out of that – and is very much going strong, in fact we have a MOOC on Scratch at Edinburgh University, and worked on the first Spanish version of that MOOC; and Alan Kay came up with the idea of the Dynabook – effectively the netbook/tablet idea – at Xerox PARC; then in the 1970s Kimbell and I worked on computer based learning and Open University came up with CAL. The 1980s saw home computing coming into the Open University, 90’s brought collaborative learning and indeed mobile and “speckled computing” – wearables, internet of things type technologies. Open Educational Resources came about in 2000, and indeed MIT used OER to make courses freely available… didn’t seem to go anyway but in 2012 those resources became MOOCs and that really has changed things. I would also point out that, if you have interest in educational computing, go to Uraguay. For a long time Nicolas Negroponte tried the One Laptop Per Child programme… tried in various places but Uraguay it really took off (see Plan Ceibal) – and that’s part of why the University of Edinburgh is working with Scratch and MOOCs in Spanish. And recently the University of Arizona has announced a discount on first year of conventional undergraduate degrees for those completing their MOOCs…

So… We are seeing a move from Blackboard/Learn etc. to those sorts of systems sitting alongside other softwares, including search, social networks, blogs, video content – a rich world of content that the university does not necessarily build/support but which benefits and sits alongside central University resources and tools. There is no single technology platform anymore.

At Edinburgh our MOOCs cover a range of topics – from Andy Warhol – collaborating with the National Galleries – to chickens! Our most popular course has been philosophy – leading to new masters programmes, books, all sorts of things. And we see many pre-entry students taking that MOOC to find out what philosophy is all about.

We have run 24 MOOCs built, 7 under constructions, 12 MOOCs under consideration; 4 platforms (mostly Coursera and Futurelean) over 1.7m enrolements and we had the first ever real time MOOC last year on the Scottish Referendum – it changed every day in response to the polls and developments. So, why do we do that? Well it’s about reputation – we are early adopters of educational technology. MOOCs allow us to explore a new pedagogical space to inform practice. And we wish to reach as widely as we can with our courses. We also run 64 online masters programmes so it is not unhelpful that some of our MOOCs give some taste of those areas of teaching.

Our MOOC students particularly come from the US and UK, China very much unrepresented. Lots of age ranges – including some very motivated under-18 year olds. Few are motivated by certificates. And in terms of prior academic study we have a highly educated population – these are Edinburgh figures but this is seen across the board in MOOCs – many learners in these spaces have a degree (or several) already.

There are some real competing models of MOOCs… The xMOOC and the cMOOC model. Our #edcmooc kind of breaks these models – with open platforms and collaboration on cMOOC model, but also xMOOC characteristics. Of course MOOCs offer some possibilities for scaling… One thing you really can’t scale is one to one interaction, although you do see a lot of peer learning in MOOCs. And we are also experimenting with automated teaching in these spaces [see my notes on Sian Bayne’s talk].

So, where is the University of Edinburgh going? Well we have more and more online masters… Perhaps our most surprising is an award by the Queen to run an advanced surgery course at an online masters. This is a massively successful course but to take it you need to be a practicising surgeon, you need to be based at a surgical unit, you also need to attend a two week assessment in Edinburgh – but we see online masters takers getting better results than some of those taking similar courses on campus.

So what does all this mean for our mainstream business? Well it is not one or the other for us… on campus and online is hybrid, it’s about what percentage is on campus, what percentage online – which may be courses or resources. Right now we expect to have, by about 2020, about 40,000 students, all with at least one fully online course, we see open studies extended (and expect around 17,000 learners enrolled), and 10,000 fully online/remote students, 100,000s of MOOC learners and 100s of OERs. When we look at that fully online percentage of students by the way, we expect to surpass that estimate I think.

I want to quickly thank some key folk around University of Edinburgh including Jeff Hayward, Sian Bayne, Amy Woodgate, etc. all of whom have been hugely influential in our online learning work.

So, my conclusions? Well, elearning is not new; elearning is now mature. Hybrid will be the new normal. Leading university brands dominate. Better to borrow than to do badly – don’t build your own platform for the sake of it. Learning at scale is real – a successful MOOC is 100,00-200,000 with maybe 30k completing those courses. And the biggest contribution of MOOCs for us has been access – reaching out to schools we never would have been able to reach for philosophy courses (for instance), coming to us for that. And reaching new communities.

And, with that Tim O’Shea is done and, pausing only for an excellent unsavoury equine nutrition joke from our chair, we are moving onto Paul Saunders… 

The changing role of IT leaders – Paul Saunders, Chief Technology Officer and Director of Information Technology, University of Dundee

Any of you who have been to Dundee lately will know that it is undergoing huge change. Back in the 1980s Dundee was quite depressed but now the city is thriving, becoming one of the best cities in the UK. [and here we have a nice quote from Stephen Fry about the perfection of Dundee]. And the University of Dundee is also undergoing change, transforming from a College to School based system, we aim to be the best University in Scotland – and we have tough competition – and want to take this opportunity to transform ourselves and how we support our users.

We are quite a small university but even we have silos, so over the last few years we have been trying to join up what we do. This is not the same as centralisation, it’s about us all working together to deliver on our transformation agenda. We want to have a fundamentally different approach to the way we deliver services, conduct our business and function as a University. But universities don’t like change – I’ve only been working in the sector a few years but I’ve learned that! I used to work at Yahoo! when it was the market leader, before Google’s IPO, and I would say that in terms of change education shares characteristics with many industries, change can be hard.

In terms of IT, we need to work out what we provide, what we support. That doesn’t mean other things will not be used, it means that we focus on what we directly provide. Dr Eddie Obeng said in a recent TED talk that “we spend our time responding rationally to a worls that we understand, and recognise, but which no longer exists”. That applies to Dundee as a city I think, and to IT as a sector.

I worked in a group with Jisc and Educause to look at the changing role of an IT leader. What defines the skills and abilities to be an IT leader – where are the gaps? We also looked at what skills and abilities would be needed in the future (5 years ish). We worked together on a paper which is now available from Jisc and Educause.

We came up with the idea of an IT wheel as a model for IT leadership. We thought it was essential that you, as a human, were part of this. So, at the core of this model is a strategist… It is surrounded with Information Technology, but at Jisc Digifest we had some debate about whether that is an essential set of skills (my own background is in IT, but before that in performance art!). Surrounding the strategist there are roles and skills as Trusted Advisors, as a Visionary, and as a Relationship builder. You need to have that vision, but you also have to deliver on that, otherwise you will have no credibility. There are too many competing products/solutions/providers for IT services to not deliver to expectations. In the outer ring of our model we have Change driver; Promoter/Persuader; Master Communicator – not always a set of skills we, as IT professionals, have; Team builder – we really have to be great team builders, you have to engage people and you have to make sure your people want to do what you want to achieve; Ambassador – IT does not have a positive image in many spheres… ; Coach – you have to mentor people, to nurture your successess.

So how do you use this model? It’s freely available online for CPD, for coaching and useful for spotting talent – it’s much easier to build technical expertise than to develop some of those skills. You need to really take advantage and encourage areas of strength – encourage people to follow what they are passionate about. And that model can also be used in job descriptions for HERA profiles, along with SOPHIA from the BCS, so we can find the right people for the roles.

So take a look at the report! Thank you.

Analytics – creating a student’s “digital ecosystem” – Terry Trundley, Head of IT, Edinburgh College

I’m new to the education sector but I am experienced at working with computers in companies who use customer data in ways that we don’t yet do in education, we don’t exploit these tools like we should be. Back in the 90s I worked with a mobile phone company and we were working with leading edge technologies – working with a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) syste, IVR (Interactive Voice Response), analytical data etc. in 1996. Those are all still around, alongside social analytics, etc. And then we have all the data you have in your institution from your learning systems, from Google Analytics, etc. So we do that from first approach by a student, when we add them to the CRM, and can work with and track them through to alumni stage…

What do airlines and colleges have in common? Bums on seats! You need a lot of people for this to work. So, when I joined Edinburgh College two years ago that was very much the challenge… I spoke to the development team… experts from outside had suggested the website was the issue… blamed IT… But then they hadn’t had a spec, and they hadn’t been given a lot of the content needed. And behind the scenes our call management and enquiry processes weren’t working well – again they blamed IT. But I pointed out that course content could not come from IT, so we asked colleagues for that content… And we also then used Google Analytics to point out where the problems were… This showed that students came into the website, but when they looked for information they were getting stumped. Having gotten the trust, showing those analytics, and reviewing those processes, where we are now is a completely different situation. Part of the model we are using is that, say, for hairdressing (one of our most popular courses) we can look at job vacancies, previous graduates who have gone into those jobs, how many are studying – we can actually ensure that our courses fit into a supply and demand model.

And now over to my colleague Gavin, who will give a live demo of the system we are using.

Gavin: We were running courses without looking across the portfolio for uptake. We used an airline type model to understand our courses, and likely uptake, before we even run the courses. We had enterprise applications data… We could see unique applicants for number of places, we could break it into courses, and use analytics of views and applications to those courses to create a live conversion rates. And we created some gamification to allow the product managers to aim to be working on leading courses. We could also monitor uptake – with traffic lighting of red (low uptake), amber (reasonable uptake), green (full or oversubscribed uptake).

We can also look across our applicants and compare with SIMD (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation) to understand how we allocate our places to meet our targets. We plot our applications across the board, and across the UK. And if we look at a map of Edinburgh we can see what percentage of our students come from areas ranked high for SIMD so we can target and shape applications accordingly.

Terry: We are really just starting out with this, if anyone else is interested or working in this area we’d welcome your comments or feedback.

Questions and discussion

Q) Can I ask Terry two questions: Do we need to employ people with a degree in common sense? And how do we turn those models into applications?

A – Terry) That’s about working with marketing and with the communities. But Gavin showed you applications… But to increase those you have to get out there with marketing, to schools, campaigning, lobbying… We don’t have an electronic way to do that at present. And we have a CRM so if students don’t get onto one course, or haven’t applied but have made enquiries, we can go back to those students and engage them.

A – Gavin) And you can target places to those in high SIMD areas.

Q again) We find it hard to move students from one campus to another too…

A – Terry) When we mapped applications we did see students didn’t always apply to their nearest campus, in fact applying from all over the place.

A – Tim) When I worked at Birkbeck, a part time college, we mapped the public transport links to our institution and particularly noted that we had four key Northern Line Stations where we had a lot of students already, and Euston station… And that led to us advertising on those routes, in those stations as they aligned with suitable commuter routes to the institution. Doing analytics on learner data is a big big plus.

Q – Mark, Chair) Going back to your use of Google Analytics to identify the problem, I’m astonished you needed that. Why did it take that to demonstrate the issue.

A – Terry) Well we were in a merger situation which is quite difficult. The website had built up over time, through the marketing team… But we had changed a lot of courses etc. and we needed a new process. It was the breakdown of the process, and where that occurred, that particularly needed highlighting.

Q – Mark) How do you predict and project the performance of courses?

A – Gavin) We use historical data as an indicator – we might exclude outlier data there. Also starting to use market forces too – so if downturn in oil industry we’ll see drop there, but a rise in uptake of renewable data.

A – Tim) You also have to use demographic data – the numbers of school leavers etc – and that can really change a lot. It’s amazing how few institutions use that data of how many school leavers will they be, how likely are they to want to go to university or college… helps you raise or lower projected numbers.

Q – Mark) And how does that work for new course decisions?

A – Gavin) You can project likely uptake, or whether or not a course will meet required targets. And not run courses that will not

A – Tim) MOOCs are incredibly good for marketing, the interest from MOOCs can show interest and help locate demand for online masters, for evening courses, for degree programmes. ASking people hypothetical questions on courses they might apply for, that’s no use. Taster courses of different types (online and offline) are a good way to test market demand.

[Note from me as a graduate of the MSc in Digital Education (then the MSc in eLearning), and as a tutor on several online programmes: I think one of the reasons why online learners do perform well is because they are part-time learners with professional contexts and responsibilities, and often family responsibilities as well. To fit studies around other commitments, and to find and justify the use of time (and cost) of studying, these students tend to be very highly motivated and engaged. I think that is as much about the part time nature of courses as it is about them being delivered online. This is something I believe the Open University also sees when it comes to the success of it’s part time learners – online and offline/hybrid.]

After some particularly tasty biscuits we are back for workshop sessions…

Session 2: Innovative teaching and learning in colleges and universities

Workshop session 1: Virtual Classroom: Observe the Student Experience in a Virtual Classroom Environment – Tracy Matheson, West Highland College

This session is a walk through of how Blackboard Collaborate works in practice, exploring the roles available for those participating, use of screen sharing, the ways in which students can interact with the content, etc. I won’t blog this in detail as I suspect many reading this will be used to seeing and engaging in Blackboard Collaborate sessions. I do, however, really like that those leading the session are split between those in the room, and a colleague dialling in from their main Fort William College. That does give a real sense of being a student in this type of virtual classroom space (including some of the challenges associated with these spaces, and the internet connections they rely upon).

Workshop session 2: Building Your Online Professional Learning Network – Jaye Richards Hill, Managing Director, Tablet Academy Africa

Jave has begun by taking us through the idea of networks as tube maps – and the power of those interconnecting:

Networks have changed the way that we work, the way that we learn. We keep in touch with our colleagues, no matter where they are, through various online networks – Yammer, Twitter, direct messages… Much less so email for me now. And I do work like that, as part of a network. They enable me to listen to buzz and the rumble of what is going on, and allows me to tap into expertise in the subjects and areas I am working on. And if I listen, I can pick up so much about what is going on. And it changes the way that you do things, allows you to adapt and to grow as a professional. This is one of the reasons I love the idea of a personal learning network. I gave a presentation with Olly Bray in 2008 on personal learning networks, and that has always been a real favourite of mine because I work like this…

Our work these days is not linear, its disorganised self-directed learning. Wikipedia isn’t something you can read without clicking links – you learn things you didn’t expect to, it’s haphazard learning but your network is like that, and you find out great stuff… For me it all came into play in my probation year in teaching, which happened to be in Tenerife. I had to come back to the UK after that, in 2005, and I’d just gotten into computers and become a member of the Times Education Supplement Connect discussion boards – a brilliant way to follow what was going on in Scottish education. I found out about a job in Glasgow through that networking space, then as that contract was due to end, I found another opportunity, again through that space and through following up with contacts. That was the beginning of my networking. This is a very personal journey for me. Networking got me a job, which at the time was really important for where I was at.

Because I was seen as a bit of a computer person, because I put all my S3 biology teaching materials in PowerPoint, I got involved when Glow started off and started blogging about it, writing about what I was doing with Glow. At a conference I was astounded to fine out that the LTS team were reading the blog and wanted me to present on them, they were commenting and following those links and commenting on each others blogs enabled me to build up a network, serendipitous spreading… Then one day a contact suggested that we move that conversation to Twitter, and that was a game changer for me. It still is a game changer for me. I have work Twitter, a private Twitter, a Twitter for South Africa where I live. It’s still my go-to professional learning resource. For me I stay in contact with colleagues by DM – quicker responses too.

Then Tess Watson nudged me onto Facebook. I’m not sure about the value for professional learning, but it is useful for personal learning, and there is a bit of an overlap there… But I tend to keep Facebook more personal… I’ll stay in touch with grandchildren there for instance. But there is a joining of personal and professional. And we have Facebook pages for our companies, wherever they are in the world, so there is a connection there.

LinkedIn is a real professional space for me. I pay for LinkedIn professional now, and find I write more for LinkedIn Pulse than for my own blog. It’s a great way to stay in touch with contacts, with other corporations, to find new opportunities. It’s good for business and extended my network out there. And it’s particularly useful if you join groups, so many resources and writing to explore. But many struggle to use it professionally. It tends to be private sector who use it more… Does it have the mileage for public sector education? It’s choice I guess… Although professional networks, they are private too.

Andrew Brown got me onto Slideshare, and I find it a great resource for finding information really quite quickly. People post great presentations, many are willing to share them for downloading and reuse. And I post my work there, and I get comments, again find new connections… So I have this big network for really good quality professional learning.

The last time I gave this presentation was in India and the idea of a network with many options – that works with the Delhi metro too… That idea of having so many more options through many connected networks.

So, where am I now? Well things can get pulled very quickly. Things that are free can go… Twitter seems to have legs… Hopefully it won’t change too much because it works and works really well. But others come and go, so you have to be judicious in what you do.

Yammer is now part of Office 365 – huge potential for education. Not sure about plans for Glow but I’d like to see Yammer in schools some time soon as it’s safe and secure to your network. It’s safe for you to communicate with students as staff, there are records of what you discuss, you can attach photos, links, etc. And it’s now built into collaborative documents in Office365 online. And when learner management comes into Office 365 that will also help Yammer. And Sway, when that comes into Office365 will also have Yammer.

And there are other tools too. Skype is really useful – and I get it in Office365 too – but I’m not sure how that space would work for making new connections. And Lync, which is now Skype for Business, is also a great tool for professional networking.

The future of learning will be crowdsourced, as Andrew Brown has suggested. And for me, my network allows me to find the experts in the crowd, to make connections with people, to look for different points of view, to gather personal and social information. And I can create content, ask questions, evaluate information, devise solutions.

Comment) You need to discover what is coming next… When Twitter came out people were wondering what the potential of it would be… We didn’t see it’s potential as a community… But it’s hard to know… We’ve abandoned things that have been hot at some point. A lot of my learning is done via a sidebar on YouTube… the related content…

A) That’s the haphazard nature of self-organised learning… Some really interesting content can be the stuff that you don’t expect. And search engines, and tools like Delve, are getting better at predicting what you will find interesting, what you may use. That predictive element is becoming more important. Google work on that, both for delivering adverts and with content. And in Office365 Delve is going more that way too – I’ve just written a guide to using Delve in education. Are there plans for Delve to be in Glow in the future? [no comments from the crowd]

Lunch, exhibition and networking…

Session 3: Using technology to improve learning, teaching and student support

Exploring the use of data to support student engagement: learning analytics at the University of Edinburgh – Wilma Alexander, Educational Design and Engagement Team, Information Services, University of Edinburgh

I’m starting from a slightly different place to our analytics colleagues this morning, who were looking more at marketing and recruitment. What I’d like to talk about this afternoon is learning analytics. And in fact I’ll be talking about quite a bounded project to look at how we can look at student learning analytics, to inform and support their learning. This isn’t a new idea, it’s at least ten years that the analysis of data has been taking place, but learning analytics is something else…

There is now a Society of Learning Analytics Research and they have a clear definition of learning analytics.

To give you a bit of background about the University of Edinburgh: We are a huge university, with a huge range of types of study that students undertake. And more recently there is the whole digital profile that you heard about from Tim O’Shea this morning – work into online programmes, MOOCs, and increasingly online support for on campus undergraduates are part of that too. Recruitment isn’t as much the focus, generally we don’t have too much difficulty attracting students but that may be an area that is quite different from other organisations, in terms of motivations and focus of this work.

Getting started with learning analytics, I feel, has been a bit like trying to build a plane whilst it’s already flying. We started off very excited by the data, and what we thought we could do with it. We have two VLEs at Edinburgh: Blackboard Learn is our main supplier, the centrally supported VLE for on campus students, and for some online distance courses as well; but we also have Moodle, an open source tool used in some of our online distance courses. And when it came to looking for data we had one vendor quite unresponsive, or slow, to requests, whereas our open source community around Moodle can be really quite responsive and creative.

There are already some examples of data analytics in use. Purdue University use a traffic light system to flag up a student who could be in trouble – as a way to flag up to students and staff where intervention may be needed. We looked across these types of examples, but also looked at what would be possible with tools already at our disposal in Blackboard Learn and also in Moodle – and in research already taking place in the University. For instance my colleague Paula Smith has been doing some work with the online surgical skills course that Tim O’Shea mentioned earlier. Here they looked at individual performance against the cohort -and this makes sense in a highly competitive cohort in a hugely competitive field – motivating them to improve performance, based on the key structural elements of that course.

We also decided to look at what staff and students might like, what they thought they might want to get out of this data. I’m somewhat avoiding using the term analytics here as I think without analysis and context what you have is data. So we explored this potential use of data through user stories – we collected 92 stories from 18 staff and 32 students. The first interesting finding was how many of the “I want to…” stories could already be done – without developing anything – we just had to show users how to access that information, and to improve our documentation for the VLEs.

When it came to why people would want to do, we found staff that had given some thought about what they wanted but that was information like activity data – the use of materials etc. The idea that activity is a useful metric of engagement is not neccassarily the case in all contexts – some students can log in once, gather all materials, and that will appear very differently to someone doing that download week by week, but does not neccassarily indicate lower/different engagement.

So, we are now at the build stage but we proposed that we give students a view of their activity – a click count for any given day for instance. And also a way to view their marks against others in their cohort. We surveyed students on these proposals – 32% felt that the activity information might be useful, whilst 97% thought the grade information would be useful. Meanwhile our steering group had some concerns about the potential gamification of the system… The students seemed less concerned about that. And when we asked students about changing learning behaviour because of the data, most said no. We also asked what information students would find useful… And here we had some wonderful thoughtful responses.

When we look at student disinterest in this, we have to be aware of the context of how the on campus courses make use of the VLEs – few use discussions, social functions, most are just sharing resources. So activity data may reflect in part the way that the course is being used.

So, all of this information has led us to a slightly different place than we expected to be… The outcomes here are that:

  • Context is all – this VLE is used in thousands of courses, in many different ways. Part of this is putting course organisers in charge of whether these analytics are switched on, and how that is done
  • Must work for individuals and course-level  – it must be meaningful and contextualised for individuals on the course.
  • Building block and plug-ins
  • Mapping our territory – we’ve used the process as a way to map out where we want to go, and that also means understanding where we deal with or choose to focus in such a way as to work around legal and ethical needs, bounding ourselves so as not to raise some of those (e.g. not linking up to library and student records). That is less complex ethically, and in terms of security and privacy – those issues must be tackled very much head on. But another positive outcome of this project has been…
  • Staff awareness – has increased and startegy and policy for the institution as a whole are being looked at right now.
  • Student awareness – also raised in this process.

We are in this brave new world, with such potential, but we have to continue to be led by the pedagoguey in this process. And we really want this to be a really positive process, for students seeing their own data as a positive part of their learning. And over the next year we will be focusing more on this, and how we can support students with learning analytics.

Digital technology for students with additional support needs – Craig Mill, Assistive Technology Advisor, CALL Scotland and Edinburgh Napier University

I’ll be talking about support for older learners. Edinburgh Napier University has students from diverse backgrounds, and we do a lot of work on widening access, and students with additional support needs (ASN). Thinking back about 15 years the support for students would be through the “Disabled Computer” – which was labelled like that, attached to special kit… and no-one used it despite it being really great stuff. Then we had a student hub – but going there did mark you out as having, say, dyslexia, and our students really want to be like everyone else… And now we have a real shift away from that specialist technology idea, towards using every day technology. So iPads for instance come with lifechanging programmes built in, great for dyslexic students and visually impaired students. Chrome books offer great opportunites. There are super every day tools that empower students.

At Edinburgh Napier we have a range of provision. Students can be assessed and receive DSA funding/support – there is talk of students having to pay £200 towards this themselves so will be interesting to see if incidence of dyslexia goes up or down as a result. We provide resources including laptop loans, VPN, etc. Bring your own device, cloud apps, Office365 etc. are also provided.

Over the last few years we saw a huge growth in the number of students requiring support for dyslexia, but we are seeing that level off and I think that may partly be about bring your own device – students are more able to manage for themselves. Having Chrome Apps available can, for instance, make a big difference. Chrome extensions can also be very helpful – and most of these are free – because you can use those extensions to help you manage web based resources (Wikipedia, VLEs, etc) and see them in “Easy Reader” to view them in a more simple format. And you can also use text to speech on that text. All there and free to use – students love this!

But there is more we can do. You can use a free and open source software tool, called “My StudyBar” which lets you highlight parts of the text, or customising the interface, etc. to meet students needs. And that StudyBar also includes a mind mapping document that enables you to put down ideas in that format, then convert into a Word document to start planning your text.

That’s just a snapshot of the technologies that we use. We use tools like TextHelp and ClarRead but I think that actually they don’t always do students justice. Some do need that specialist hardware and software but for many students these widely available tools are hugely helpful.

Questions and discussion

Q) Do you think we should be blurring boundaries between assistive technologies and useful technologies – to stop that labelling?

A – Craig) For some people there is a real need for those specialist technologies… and that label matters. There are children who would have needed a £7-8000 piece of specialist kit, can now be done with an iPad for £7-800.

Q) So do we need a whole new label perhaps?

A – Wilma) In terms of assistive technologies for online learning, if we do something to make materials accessible, all students benefit. There is something there about mainstreaming good practice, so that specialists like Craig, and specialist technologies can focus on those who really need it. That allows you to support many students easily, then intensely focus resources on those with the greater needs.

A – Craig) The legislation is interestingly worded for that, but the more accessible your teaching, the more it is for all of your learners.

Q) In a professional sense how do you keep ahead of the students on technologies?

A – Craig) The students are really knowledgeable on Twitter, Facebook etc… But they don’t know about heading structures, speak tools for text etc. Students know what they know, but there is still lots they can pick up.

Q) What about students use of VLEs?

A – Wilma) I think for us one of the things we find is that there is really no time of day or day of the week where students are not using the VLE, are not learning online. That brings some support challenges – for instance for maintaining those systems.

Q) The idea of moving away from a deficit model of support, moving to proactive rather than reactive systems… In the old days the reactive systems might only kick in too late, so proactive technology can have real impact here.

A – Wilma) It is equally true that the more we can design everything we do to be accessible… There will still be some students that still require some specialist support but the more mainstream the tools and approach, the more you move from the deficit idea that the student somehow lacks something…

Q) And what are the differences between campus and on line systems?

A – Wilma) In on campus courses you will have some familiarity with your students, your systems will flag up changing assignment performance, etc. There is no need to automate that… But something like a traffic light system helps to flag that up – clearly a good lecturer will spot that too.

Q) You commented about the possible change in number of dyslexia after the £200 levy… Can you expand that…

A – Craig) I do a huge amount of work for Dyslexia Scotland but it is a term that covers a lot of very different needs and I’m not always sure the label is always helpful.

Session 4: Can technology help widening access to further and higher education? – Panel debate

Panellists:

  • Dr Muir Houston (MH) – Lecturer, School of Education, University of Glasgow
  • Lucy MacLeod (LM) – Depute Director (Students), Open University in Scotland
  • Tracy Matheson (TM), Curriculum Manager (Business, IT and Tourism), West Highland College
  • Dr Graeme Thomson (GT), Access Academy Co-ordinator, FOCUS West 

LM: The OU of course uses technology but actually it is about flexibility, it is about tutors, and about an open model of education, rather than the tools that we do. The other thing I wanted to raise is that the internet is full of stuff – many open educational resources, and you can quickly get into a debate about I have more stuff than you do… But does that actually widen access? Well, the jury seems to be out. We heard from Tim O’Shea this morning that 80% of those doing MOOCs have degrees, half of them have post graduate degrees. OK 20% do not but what is the experience for a learner on that course… It is about how you use this material. If we are about access to qualifications, learners really need that guide. The OU has tried to get learners together across communities, to look at pathways to degrees. Digital participation matters – 23% of adults don’t have access to the internet, 43% don’t use their phone to get online, 53% don’t use social networking. How do we get to these people? Wilma talked about some students understanding some online tools… But do they understand research libraries… To think about learning analytics it is really only useful if you know what you plan to do with that information, and I’m a firm believer that that is most useful when you use that information to trigger and inform conversations between tutors and students.

GT: FOCUS West work with schools in the West of Scotland, with funding from the Scottish Funding Council, to widen access. We have just built an online tool called “FOCUS Point” to share information and advice about post school routes, from schools that don’t have a tradition of sending students into college and university. So, introducing learners about what colleges and universities are about, what that experience is like, and practical advice about applying and taking up places. There are activities around subject choices, routes after school, entry routes, assistance with personal statement writing. And also getting students to set up a login that enables them to record their engagement, build up a portfolio, and build a certain element of social networking – to reduce potential isolation of being perhaps the only pupil in a school interested in pursuing a particular route/degree. So I’m here to say that whilst there may be some scepticism about use of technology, what we do has been well received but this stuff only work well when connected up with face to face experiences. I fear that MOOCs can potentially increase that sense of isolation…

TM: For us our face to face tends to have to be through virtual classroom. To do that face to face would mean not being able to access that education in some cases.

MH: Most non traditional students tend to be represented in main universities, but there are issues of the experience, inequalities, and also costs. It can be hard to convince an adult that it is worth paying for their child to go to university and leave with debts, and a job in a fast food restaurant. That’s where credit transfer can make a big difference – in theory that should work… Universities don’t like each others credits, everyone is quite protective of their own income streams.

Chair: So, whose responsibility is it to force those cautious institutions?

MH: The Funding Council.

Chair: What is the experience with the Open University in terms of credit transfer?

LM: The average age of OU student is 37 at the moment – and it’s dropping. We don’t have entry requirements, that’s one of our founding principles, so that is a barrier that simply isn’t there. And the courses are designed to be a ladder that takes you to a level 7 over the first year. The other big thing that the government has done for part time study and the OU, has been the part time fee grant. To allow people to study part time not to pay fees – that is not always well understood so students studying part time in Scotland do pay fees, and pay up front. In Scotland we have seen OU applications be stable, down south it has dropped due to the higher fees that students are now facing there due to the cut in government funding for the OU there, requiring students to take out loans.

MH: Learning paths can really go in different ways… It might start with a language course because a shopfloor worker is working in Spain, say, and that may then lead to the OU, and maybe a route to do an engineering degree. The union has negotiated a collective bargaining agreement so that their employer pays 40% of costs but that is still a huge financial and personal commitment – to study perhaps 6 years for a BEng alongside a 37 hour week. But that’s a great thing to do, and I know the OU does more of these sots of projects.

Chair: Is the ease of access for a lot of kids, a reason they are not engaged? Difficulty can be motivating?

GT: We find those that who do a free access programme are far more likely to continue progressing than those with a similar background without access to that programme. But people at Govan High, their local university is Glasgow which has very demanding grades, so you have to be really dedicated to get there really. But I think we’ll continue to see that…

Q) We’re having a regular conversation in the Scottish Borders about the drop out rate for our high school students as they go to university. What do we have to do as head teachers to help with that… Hearing Graeme talk about the social networks maybe we need to do more of that, or interventions we can make earlier… I’m not sure which way we should be going…

GT: I think just preparing students for what universities and colleges is actually like can make a big difference. There are many opportunities there but there can be some competition rather than collaboration between universities sometimes – blurring of marketing and recruitment with widening access. But activities like critical thinking, self led study, working with different sources, etc. those can be very valuable – and programmes offering that can have a big impact. Some HEIs can do more as well – with academic staff giving a sense of level 1 social science programmes for schools for instance.

MH: It’s not just pupils who need to understand social and cultural issues, it’s the parents too. I stole an idea from the OU – they used to have a guide for significant others which we adapted for parents as well. Things like timetable structures, when assessments are due… If you don’t know what your child is up to and what is expected of them, how can you support that. An understanding of important times in that calendar etc. can make a huge difference. It was a great tool the OU made. Knowing about that helps parents to work with their child, motivate them, help them manage stress.

Chair: But surely for your child, once they are there, it’s up to them?

TM: I think for rural students that can be a real challenge, and can really effect drop out rates. So we have some study skills modules designed for high schools, to encourage students to take them at high school to prepare them. But actually even if you’ve sent your child off to the big city parental support does still matter – and that’s not just financial, that’s about encouragement and emotional support. We also have three Highers for access to learners, using virtual learning, that are for students to take and manage themselves. We are quite strict about assignments etc. to help there. But working with colleges, universities, that your students will be going to can make a big difference to preparing students, and ensuring they have the skills they need to do well.

Chair: Occasionally you might be the only student in a school taking a subject, you said that you have this social network for students – does that work?

GT: It’s perhaps too early to say. Schools have been welcoming the stuff that we do, and it intersects with what they do for PSE, and eProfiles work. What hasn’t been embraced yet is the social networks side – we have more work to do there. Everyone have said it is a good idea, but you need enough people to make it worthwhile but it could be pretty innovative and worthwhile.

LM: A couple of things that occurred to me here, that I think are just as relevant for us. Some research we have done suggests “struggling students want to be noticed” and there is a responsibility for universities to use the sorts of analytics Wilma was talking about to really identify those students. At a big university you can easily feel lost, it’s really quite tough, and you are faced with being an independent leaner as well. The other project that may be worth mentioning. The OU, on behalf of the sector, is running something called “Back on Course” – we are working with 7 universities about drop outs from those universities, and follow up to see if they are OK, see if they are ok, if they would like a guided interview, if they want to adjust study plans, and I think there is potential there to come up with that sort of shared solution.

Chair: How easy is it to monitor outcomes of students once they have dropped out or finished?

TM: It’s really quite hard. In small communities there can be word of mouth and good will of organisations in some areas. But a telephone interview three months after school leaving gives a one off snapshot. I’m not sure what Skills Scotland do with tools like social networks. High schools generally have some idea – but only because they are smaller school.

Comment) It is becoming more critical… But I would like to be part of that conversation you are having with students who drop out, as in your work at OU for the moment.

MH: If you used the Scottish Candidate Number throughout Universities that would be hugely helpful. The dropping of that in HE breaks that pipeline. In the US they use the Social Security number – and that gives income as well. We don’t capture that but that would be really useful. I was on a working group with the Scottish Funding Council and UUK and income was deemed to be so useful, but there is a lot of resistance. I’m not sure if the issue is security of information. Postcodes are crude. SIMD 40 is useless, need SIMD 10 to really target support here.

LM: Another point about school leavers… When we talk about university I think we have to get away from the idea that the people who go to university are all young people. And also decrease the emphasis on what university leavers then do. We don’t talk about lifelong learning anymore, but that concept does matter. And 17 or 19 is maybe not the time to go to university for some people…

MH: And actually that may be where your drop out rates may come in… It may be that at 30, when you really proactively want to learn, you will be a much more motivated. In London there is an aspiration of 90% of students who want to go to university, and that may well not be right for them…

Comment: And apprentices, vocational education, etc. can be really good routes, without the debt etc.

MH: And in Germany those skilled jobs have real standing and less stigma about them as qualifications, as routes…

Chair: To finish, if you could change one thing, what would it be?

GT: I think we could achieve more as a country if there was more collaboration between institutions, and if widening participation was more separated from recruitment and marketing.

LM: I agree with that! I think I might take away money given to universities to work on widening access, and instead distribute it to primary schools in the poorest areas.

TM: I think that everyone should have access to the internet, to enable learning to take place no matter where they are – no matter what stage of education you are at, including school leavers, adult learners. Internet and transport infrastructures both need. I also think our college infrastructure is getting stronger and that lets young people stay at home longer, to find work locally, and for doing even one year of college can boost confidence and that reduces drop out rates if/when they then go into HE.

MH: I would like us to return to the thinking of education as a public good. And that education is about your own potential, the community, civic education and about quality of life issues. Increasingly degree programmes are focused on very narrowly defined jobs, when that job goes or changes your degree will be less useful than a broad degree will. These days everyone not only have degrees, you need postgraduate degrees! So you need to look at what you are doing and why, for there to be a broad skills such as critical thinking, personal reflection, etc.

Summary and conclusions by the Chair – Mark Stephen

And with that Mark thanks sponsors and all for taking part and attending.