RIDE Conference 2017 Blog

RIDE 2017

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 events 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 included 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 thanked the CDE Fellows and particularly the conference co-chairs for putting together an excellent programme with two first-class keynote speakers and a varied and interesting programme of parallel sessions. Before handing over to the opening keynote speaker, he announced a new annual award that has been set up by the University of London’s International Programme. This is to be administered by the fellows’ group in memory of one of their number, Roger Mills, who had an ‘extraordinarily long’ pedigree in teaching and research in distance education both at the Open University and as a CDE Fellow, and 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’, came to higher education and FutureLearn from the BBC where he had spearheaded the launch of iPlayer. He describes himself as a ‘digital disrupter’, which is an apt description for someone whose work had changed the viewing habits of a nation. His opening keynote was engaging, 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 registrations so far. Nelson described how it is expanding and diversifying its course portfolio attract an even wider variety of learners. The range of courses offered through FutureLearn now ranges from very short, informal ‘taster’ courses through certificated CPD for professional groups to fully accredited undergraduate and masters’ degrees. He commented that he has been encouraged in this ‘scary, post-Brexit world’ by the range and reach of FutureLearn’s international partners, now including 45 of the world’s top 200 universities.

Each of the three parallel sessions that followed concentrated on one of the topics from the conference title: MOOCs, open educational resources (OERs) and innovation. The MOOC session, which was chaired by Alan Tait, 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. This MOOC provides a ‘taster’ for the college’s MA in Education, and, like many MOOCs, its massive cohort size and limited tutor availability make it harder to offer a deep and engaging learning experience. To address this issue students were asked to keep journals to reflect on their learning, and a proportion of those who did so described their learning as ‘transformative’.

Sally Parsley from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine presented an analysis of student engagement with a free six-week course in tackling preventable blindness for healthcare workers in resource-poor situations. Participants from many different countries and disciplines were encouraged to discuss all aspects of the course through forums and social media tools. Sally has been analysing student discussions using the text-mining tool of categorisation, and is using the results to improve the course design and encourage further collaborative learning in future cohorts.  Both speakers touched on the dilemma of how best to reach the most disengaged learners, who are inevitably more disadvantaged.

The open education resources session, which was chaired by Kerrison, featured talks by the Open University’s Andrew Law and by Ryan Northrop of Coursera. Law gave an overview of the OU repository of free learning resources, OpenLearn, which attracts millions of users, focusing on the ‘non-confident, underserved and unreached’; many of these learners were previously unlikely even to join a ‘linear’ course on a MOOC. These resources are designed to be flexible, relevant in the workplace, topical and far-reaching, and to reward and recognise learning. So far, about 13% of OpenLearn users have made inquiries about registering for an OU course.  OpenLearn ‘graduates’ may instead join a Coursera MOOC; this is the largest MOOC platform with over 25 million registered users, and Northrop, the second speaker in this session, provided a snapshot of its progress. Although most registered Coursera users are well-educated and in employment, no fewer than 33% in one survey reported a ‘tangible’ career benefit such as a promotion or a pay rise. And the platform is engaging with new demographics, including a focus on refugees.

Hatzipanagos chaired the session on ‘Innovation’, which 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 with a discussion led by another CDE Fellow, Ormond Simpson. Kato started by distinguishing between ‘gamification’, or the incorporation of elements of games into everyday life; simulations; and serious play, which is designed to foster learning and influence real-world behaviour. She then presented a vivid example in the form of ‘Re-Mission’, a video game in which teenagers with cancer take the role of ‘micro-bots’ that enter their bodies to fight cancer using chemotherapy, antibiotics and immune cells. Evaluation indicated that the youngsters engaged with and enjoyed the game and that there were some positive health outcomes.

Simpson’s engaging session, in which delegates were asked to lay bets on ‘the most important innovations for distance education in five years’ time’, provided a rather less serious example of a ‘serious game’ in practice. Participants worked in pairs or threes to argue the odds for their chosen innovations, which provoked some sharp, lively discussions. Each technology was thought to have risks as well as benefits. Teachers’ commitment to a critical, learning-centred, evidence- and values- informed pedagogy should minimise the risk to benefit ratio for each innovation, with resource limitations and short-term ‘fads’ providing the greatest threats. And the outcome?  Eventually, motivational techniques and learning analytics came to offer the shortest odds.

Three contrasting parallel sessions followed the lunch break: a panel discussion, a longer talk and a workshop. The panel was chaired by CDE Fellow Stephen Brown of De Montford University; Vivien Rolfe (University of the West of England), Simon Thomson (The Open University) and Heather Wharrad (Nottingham University) discussed whether OERs could be implemented on a large scale or whether they were ‘just a passing fad’. In a 2010 paper, Wharrad’s colleague, Richard Whittle, had suggested that the OER movement might, indeed, have a ‘transformative’ effect on higher education, but that it must ‘move into the mainstream and facilitate widespread participation in the sharing or creating of resources and in their reuse’ in order do so. The panellists presented examples of creating, maintaining and sustaining open resources in different contexts. A lively discussion followed, with participants suggesting that it was, indeed, possible to implement OERs usefully, even ‘on a shoestring’, but that planning and careful thought was needed in order to do so.

The second session featured an extended, strategic overview of the past, present and future of distance education at the University of London by Kerrison and two of his colleagues in the university’s International Programme, Julia Leong Son and Carly Norris. Appropriately enough, this session was chaired by Ayona Silva-Fletcher of the Royal Veterinary College, who is the current chair of the CDE Fellows’ group. The International Programme – formerly the ‘External System’ – was established by Queen Victoria in 1858, which makes it the oldest provider of degree-level distance learning in the world.  It was the first UK university to admit women to all degree courses and counts seven Nobel laureates including Nelson Mandela among its alumni.

Today, the International Programme offers its courses in collaboration with 11 other internationally recognised institutions, all based in London. An institution may choose to offer its own or University of London badged degrees via three ‘tracks’ with track C – ‘a new online route to a UoL degree – the newest. The market for distance-based University level courses is becoming more crowded, but demand should still outgrow supply with particularly strong growth in middle-income non-OECD countries.  Kerrison presented the International Programmes’ strategy for 2014-19, which stresses flexibility in the timing and mode of courses, and described two new ‘track C’ courses: an MSc in Professional Accountancy, now in its second year, and a very new global MBA that includes a set of pre-course MOOCs to prepare students for MBA level study.

The third session, chaired by CDE Fellow David Baume and 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. Following the initial presentations, delegates were given an opportunity to interact with and try out the demos.

The conference ended with a few words of thanks from the chair of the CDE Fellows’ group, Ayona Silva-Fletcher, 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. It is particularly valuable in distance education as instructors have fewer opportunities to pick up cues about students’ engagement from their demeanour. 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, including tools for tracking VLE use as a proxy for student engagement and models for predicting which students are most at risk of dropping out. She also highlighted 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.

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