RIDE 2017 Conference Report
Learning and Teaching in a Digital Age: MOOCs, OERs and Innovation
The Centre for Distance Education at the University of London has held an annual conference under the ‘RIDE’ strapline almost every year since its institution in 2005. These meetings have become a popular fixture in academics’ and learning technologists’ calendars in and beyond London, and this year’s, held at Senate House on Friday March 24th, was very well received. It was ably chaired by two CDE Fellows, Stylianos Hatzipanagos of King’s College London and Alan Tait from the Open University, and the programme featured speakers from as far afield as the Universities of Plymouth and Lorraine (France) as well as many home-grown London ones.
After welcoming delegates, Hatzipanagos introduced Mike Kerrison, Director of Educational Innovation and Development. Kerrison announced that a new annual award been set up by the University of London’s International Programme. This is to be administered by the CDE Fellows’ group in memory of one of their number, Roger Mills, who sadly died last summer. The award for ‘excellence in distance education’ will be a fitting memorial to a wise, kind and generous colleague..
Simon Nelson, CEO of the FutureLearn ‘social learning platform’, gave an engaging first keynote lecture focusing on, in the words of his title, ‘strategic challenges for MOOCs today’. FutureLearn is the leading UK-based provider of these massive online courses, with over 6 million learners and 14 million course registrations so far. Coming to higher education from the BBC where he had spearheaded the launch of iPlayer, Nelson described how FutureLearn is expanding and diversifying its course portfolio to offer accreditation and even full degrees and to attract an even wider variety of learners.
Three parallel sessions followed, each taking one of the topics from the conference title: MOOCs, open educational resources and innovation. The MOOC session featured two talks by University of London academics who had been funded through the CDE’s Teaching and Research Award scheme. Eileen Kennedy from University College London set out the challenges for MOOCs in providing ‘deep learning’, using a popular Coursera MOOC, ‘What Future for Education?’, as an example. Sally Parsley from London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine presented an analysis of engagement with a free six-week course in tackling preventable blindness for healthcare workers in resource-poor situations. Both speakers touched on the dilemma of how to best to reach the most disengaged learners, who are almost inevitably more disadvantaged.
The open education resources session featured talks by the Open University’s Andrew Law and by Ryan Northrop of Coursera. Law described the OU repository of free learning resources, OpenLearn, which attracts millions of users, many of whom were previously unlikely even to join a ‘linear’ course on a MOOC. Nevertheless, about 13% of OpenLearn users have made inquiries about registering for an OU course. Some may instead have joined a Coursera MOOC; this is the largest MOOC platform with over 25 million registered users, and Northrop provided a snapshot of its progress. The third session combined a talk by consultant Pam Kato, a former director of the Serious Games Institute at the University of Coventry, on the value and uses of games in education and an engaging session led by another CDE Fellow, Ormond Simpson, that asked delegates to lay bets on ‘the most important innovations for distance education in five years’ time’. Motivational techniques at 3 to 1 and learning analytics at 5 to 1 offered the shortest odds.
Three contrasting parallel sessions followed the lunch break. One was a panel discussion chaired by CDE Fellow Stephen Brown of De Montford University, in which Vivien Rolfe (University of the West of England), Simon Thomson (The Open University) and Heather Wharrad (Nottingham University) discussed whether open educational resources could be implemented on a large scale or whether they were ‘just a passing fad’. The discussion was lively and suggested that it was, indeed, possible to implement OERs usefully ‘on a shoestring’ but that it needed care. In another session, Michael Kerrison, Director of Educational Innovation and Development at the University of London, and his team gave an extended presentation on the 158-year history, present and future of distance education at the University.
The third session, billed as a demonstration and workshop, featured two scenario-based training initiatives with very different intended audiences. Lynsie Chew from the UCL School of Management described ‘Icarus’, a simulation in which groups of MSc Professional Accounting students ‘run’ an airport, deciding how to budget and invest and hoping to make a profit. Arunangsu Chatterjee of the Peninsula Medical School in Plymouth presented a virtual reality-based tool for teaching the safe care of Ebola patients in a rural African setting. The first version of this, for health workers, featured in the Telegraph’s Christmas appeal in 2014; the team has now produced a version for a local community using cartoon-like graphics that were cheaper to implement.
The conference ended with a few words of thanks from the chair of the CDE Fellows’ group, Ayona Silva-Fletcher of the Royal Veterinary College, and a keynote lecture on learning analytics by Anne Boyer of the Université de Lorraine in France. Learning analytics can be briefly defined as the automatic analysis of digital traces to model and/or predict student behaviour, and it has become increasingly popular in recent years. The tools available range in complexity and value from the simply descriptive (“What did the students do?”) to the prescriptive (“how can we make them change their behaviour?”) She presented a wide range of examples with the insights they provided, while highlighting a few ethical dilemmas that the use of analytics can pose.
This varied and exciting programme will have given many delegates food for thought and initial feedback suggests that some will already be holding space in their diaries for RIDE 2018.
A more detailed report will be available soon.