The fact that numbers of part-time students are decreasingly enormously is neither new news nor contested. Much soul searching has gone on in many quarters to establish the reason, commonly attributed to the increase in fees for part-time students. I'm sure that's true. However, the Times Higher Education carried a letter in its March 31st issue under the title 'OU soul-searching' in which the writer suggests that the falling demand for part-time study is easily comprehended by the fact that the OU was created when less than 7 per cent of adults had degrees and there was real demand for university-level education from skilled and semi-skilled workers as well as those in careers that were to become professionalised via accreditation. Comparing that with the almost 50 per cent of 18 year olds now going to university he/she suggests that far more of the general population now in their middle age have university degrees than in the 1960s when the OU was founded, hence there is necessarily less demand.
This is an interesting and relatively commanding observation. One that I had not thought of before, and one I find hard to refute. However...
The suggestion is premised on the fact that what the OU was providing and what a high proportion of the adult population wanted and needed was: a) a degree; b) from a university; and c) that contributed to the professionalisation of a career or employment sector. It may be that (c) too is now virtually redundant since many professions - nursing is a high profile example - now require their new recruits to have a university degree and have well established academic pathways to enable them to achieve that.
But does this mean that the falling demand for part-time study is inexorable and inevitable? Should the OU (and other major providers of part-time study such as Birkbeck and Edge Hill) just give up now?
No. Of course not. It's true that their tried and tested market and corresponding pedagogical model(s) may be on the wane, but it certainly doesn't mean these providers have no future, nor does it mean that the demand for part-time learning is on the wane. It does mean that part-time providers need to be astute and to read the signs of the times. In my view they are better placed than many campus-based and residential universities to respond to emerging needs, identify new opportunities and seize the future. In many ways they are already doing this through MOOCs. Research indicates that MOOCs are most commonly studied by already well qualified adults, generally employed and whose reason for enrolling on a MOOC include their own professional development. Admittedly the fact that they are free of charge is an attraction, but the world is now seeing hundreds of thousands of learners enrolling on part-time study through MOOCs. The demand is there. What makes the difference?
First, MOOCs generally run for a much shorter period of time than conventional undergraduate study. A traditional part-time degree can take as much as eight years to complete. MOOCs run for between four and twelve weeks. No, they don't offer accredited awards (yet). No, they don't lie at a specified and validated level of study (yet). Yes, they are free of charge (for the moment). Yes, they are hugely expensive to develop and run and some institutions view them as a type of loss leader: a means of attracting new recruits at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels for their more 'conventional' programmes of study. But these are not necessarily deterrents and many, with a little creative and flexible thinking, can be resolved.
Second, MOOCs are well-placed to meet people's CPD needs in a more innovative fashion and in a way that meets the needs of employers and learners alike. MOOCs have the potential to fit into a 'flipped classroom' model very easily. Learners would work through a MOOC, part-time and alongside their employment, then attend a residential week, perhaps specifically organised with a global employer who is keen to internationalise their staff. Then back to another MOOC, and so on.
Third, MOOCs can offer individuals considering a career change the opportunity to learn something about the new direction they are considering. Such a 'taster' doesn't need to require a full year of study, and combining MOOCs in a flipped classroom approach might allow them to go on and get a qualification.
This is, of course, the traditional PG Taught constituency. Learners who need a taught Master's degree, either part-time or full-time, to advance their existing career or allow them to move to another. However, this model offers something that many PGT courses don't: flexibility in allowing learners to choose what, when, where and how they study.
MOOCs may offer a window to the future that institutions such as the OU are well placed to step into quickly and efficiently. Here's my thinking.
1. Like it or not (I'm ambivalent) we seem to be moving towards an age when even learning needs to take place in shorter bursts. There are advantages and disadvantages, but an advantage is that 'chunking' learning into small segments increases the possibility of flexible study and may provide greater opportunities for a greater number of learners, worldwide.
2. MOOCs allow a genuine flexibility of pace, permitting learners who want to, to progress far more quickly than others.
3. MOOCs offer the possibility of seamless intersection with employers, who themselves are increasingly moving towards flexible working.
4. MOOCs can target a specific employment need or area of study.
5. MOOCs are mobile. They can be studied anywhere.
I'm realistic enough to acknowledge the finances are still the number one challenge to solve. But my sense is that a MOOC model, even if it requires learners to pay, may yet prove to be a way forward for institutions like the OU, not least because they are flexible enough to fit alongside a world that itself is both becoming more flexible and requiring greater flexibility from its higher education institutions.
The proposed 'right to disconnect' after work hours is welcome, but not enough
One of the factors that I have generally understood to be an increasingly important driver behind the flexible learning in HE agenda has been the changes in wider society. Most notably, technological advances have already impacted many sectors of society, including the workplace, so that employees can work from home or while on the move more frequently than ever before, and the traditional boundaries between our tried and tested 8hrs of work, 8hrs of sleep and the remaining 8hrs of 'leisure', are being eroded. It is something I have experienced and continue to experience. I was a home-based worker with the Higher Education Academy for 4 years, living in Oxford while the HEA's offices were in York, about 200 miles away. I travelled a considerable amount and it made sense not to have to relocate, and the HEA successfully organised its technological provision to allow its home-based employees to engage in remote meetings with York-based staff.I sometimes wondered if Cross Country trains would decide to charge me office space as I spent a lot of time travelling with my laptop on my lap! I rarely worked a 9 to 5 day, often catching a 6.35 train or working late into the evening, but I also had the flexibility to take time out during the day time if I needed to. It was a system which worked and worked well. There are many articles predicting the rise of this sort of pattern of 'flexible working' and I have generally believed that this would eventually become the norm, opining that as a result higher education institutions would need to adjust and become more flexible themselves in order to have a more seamless intersection with employers.
I was intrigued, therefore, to read an article in this week's 'The Conversation' which reports a move in France to legislate in favour of employees having the right to 'disconnect' and to ignore emails from employers during evenings and weekends so that time with friends and family is not affected by work distractions or feelings of guilt. Not only so - the idea of legislating about the issue is already extraordinary - but the proposed legislation would make it the employers' responsibility to manage 'this intrusive technology and its effects on employees', rather than the employees' - which has traditionally been the case. Gillian Symon, Professor of Organisation Studies at Royal Holloway University, the writer of the article, is cautiously positive about the initiative. Her own research indicates that 'there needs to be respect for individuals’ chosen work-life boundaries at all levels within organisations'. That, coupled with the fact that 'the proposed legislation acknowledges the considerable research that suggests that we need to psychologically detach from work regularly, or risk becoming exhausted and losing our creativity' and there .is a developing argument against flexible working. This in turn could have a knock-on effect on institutions embracing ever increasing levels of flexible learning. However, Symon takes a sideways step. Questioning what 21st century working lives are like, she concludes:
To support flexible working, we may need flexible legislation that is based on other considerations than time alone, including where and how we work best. It’s very unlikely there will be a one-size-fits-all solution; researchers and policymakers are going to have to find more creative 21st century solutions for this very 21st century problem.
Much of this can apply to flexible learning, although it is unlikely to require legislation! But a greater understanding of where and how we work best is also likely to inform institutions about where and how their students learn best. We already know that a one-size-fits-all solution to the needs of 21st century students doesn't exist and that 'more creative 21st century solutions for this very 21st century problem' need to be found and implemented. Symon's research suggests that 'we might be making sense of our lives in radically different ways in the 21st century' and that 'we distinguish between online and offline lives rather than work and non-work hours, and we think more about how we prioritise time, rather than how we divide it'. This too applies to students and their learning, and especially part-time students who are combining work with study.
I agree with Symon. If we continue to conceptualise our lives and time in terms of the traditional work/sleep/leisure segments and to expect, albeit tacitly, workers (and learners) to somehow incorporate and manage the complexities introduced by digital technologies within these boundaries, something will eventually have to give way, most probably people's health, both physical and mental. If, on the other hand, we are able to redefine those boundaries and to accept that during our periods 'online' we may need to combine tasks relating to our employment, to our social and family lives, building in specific 'offline' periods alongside these - which might also, with a little creative thinking, incorporate tasks relating to employment, social and family lives - then there is every possibility that flexible learning can be added to the mix.
I'm still pondering this. It was a question which arose yesterday in the HEA's SEP event. I think my own take on it is that, although closely related, flexible learning and inclusive learning are actually quite distinct. Of course, there are many different definitions of flexible learning, and I am increasingly coming to the view that the word 'learning' may not be the most appropriate term to describe what we have understood as 'flexible learning' over the past 5 years or so. I'm not sure what I would put in its place. Maybe flexible delivery? Not quite as sexy though, is it!
But quite a lot of the discussion might turn on that term. I can understand that flexible learning, if we take the 'learning' seriously, could well be almost synonymous with inclusive learning. After all, the whole point is to create systems and structures which allow students to personalise their learning according to their own needs, circumstances and aspirations. When that is genuinely possible then of course learning becomes more available to a much wider range of people and hence becomes far more inclusive.
Yet the key words in what I've said above are 'systems and structures'. At present most institutions find flexible delivery challenging not least because their systems and structures - their infrastructures - are designed for homogeneity. In the interests of efficiency and therefore cost, they depend on many students all fitting the same mould. That means they all do the same thing at the same time, and while some choice might be available (such as a limited range of module options) the overall mindset and approach is one of conformity rather than individualised learning.
It is a problem for institutions. But the problem, in my view, could be resolved by a serious and creative commitment to creating systems that are not, first and foremost, aiming to bring everyone 'together', administratively. Instead, the systems are designed for individuality. These days technology surely offers this possibility and with some genuinely creative thinking about how such a flexible infrastructure might be designed, truly flexible delivery could be achieved. The difficulty lies in the cost, effort, time and probably entire institutional overhaul that this would require. I have often wondered whether it was the enormity of this challenge that has resulted in the creation of a number of institutional 'sub institutions': separately-functioning entities where the mother institution has been able to start something off from a clean slate.
So maybe the answer to my question above is that flexible learning is indeed similar to inclusive learning. However, inclusive and flexible learning depend on flexible delivery structures in order to be readily put into place. While we may have been using the term 'flexible learning' in a rather sloppy way it nonetheless has some meaning in the sector, with many continuing to turn to the familiar 'pace, place and mode' as well as student choice to define and shape their understanding.
Yesterday I attended an HEA event in Birmingham that brought together many of the institutional teams which had participated the HEA's 2015/2015 Strategic Enhancement Programmes. It was an opportunity to catch up with the TEF and the HEA's 'take' on that, for HEA staff to bring us all up to date with the work being conducted on thematic frameworks, and for teams to showcase the work they did as part of the SEP.
The significant aspect to emerge which relates to flexible learning is the initiative from the Sheffield Hallam SEP team suggesting that a collaborative sector-wide flexible learning community of practice might be set up. The HEA is enthusiastic and there was a warm response from the 20 or so delegates who attended the workshop where the idea was discussed.
The team's useful handout outlining some suggested discussion points is below. Anyone interested in responding or getting involved should contact Stella Jones-Devitt at S.Jones-Devitt@shu.ac.uk.
I am fascinated by Pearson's announcement that they are pulling out of the Learning Management System market. The Inside Higher Ed report contains the following statement.
While the LMS will endure as an important piece of academic infrastructure, we believe our learning applications and services are truly ‘where the learning happens,’” the OpenClass website reads. “In short, withdrawing from the crowded LMS market allows us to concentrate on areas where we can make the biggest measurable impact on student learning outcomes.
How intriguing! Pearson's assumption seems to be that an impact on student learning outcomes can not only be made, but actually enhanced, by removing what has often been seen as a symbiotic link between learning management systems and learning itself. Many might claim the reverse, especially those who have experienced at first hand the need to think pedagogically when putting their toes into online waters for the first time and having to contend with both the exciting affordances that a learning management system offers as well as its restrictions.
The question of the degree to which teaching and learning are contingent on VLEs and learning platforms re-surfaced in the HEA's first report on MOOCs, The Pedagogy of the Massive Open Online Course: the UK view (2014). In that report authors Sian Bayne and Jen Ross (Edinburgh University) comment that:
MOOC pedagogy, in other words, is not something that is just embedded in the online platform, nor is it something that can be conveniently categorised; instead, the report shows, it is emergent, diverse and must be able to continually adapt. (p4)
It is easy to assume from that statement that MOOC pedagogies are separate from their online platforms, but I don't think this is what Bayne and Ross mean, or at least not in quite such absolute terms. MOOCs are dependent on their platforms and their pedagogies facilitate and often shape what is possible in terms of student engagement. Yet at the same time, because MOOCs are so new there is no agreed or established pedagogy nor, in reality, are there MOOC platforms that are so established that their pedagogical style and approach is fixed in stone. We are still in those exciting times when teachers and learners can still use their pedagogical expertise to influence the platform designers and explore the relationship between a VLE and student learning in a creative way.
We are also at a point in time when some are exploring whether and how programmes might be offered and managed not through a VLE but by combining the use of a range of online and web-based tools. Much creativity is permitted using such an approach, although it introduces other problems such as students having to register for each of the applications used, perhaps download them onto their laptops or tablets, and then contend with the vagaries of different browser capacities, operating systems and so on.
It seems to me that it is challenging to divorce pedagogies from platform, and that the real task of those involved in online learning - from developers such as Pearson to learning designers, academics and learners themselves - is to continue researching the relationship between a VLE, its embedded pedagogies and the learning which it facilitates.
From a flexible learning perspective VLEs can often represent the 'from above', institutionally-driven educational system into which learners must fit themselves. The HEA's Framework for flexible learning in higher education includes 'institutional systems and structures' as one of its four key areas of focus alongside technology-enhanced learning, pedagogical approaches and employment. It indicates the importance of institutional agility and personal flexibility, as well as of 'balanced pragmatism'. Balanced pragmatism recognises the fact that at times the interests of institutions and learners can conflict. This is especially the case for a strongly student-centred flexible approach. The inclusion of institutional systems and structures as an area of focus emphasises the role that these can play in enhancing, facilitating and/or hindering flexibility in just the same way that VLEs can facilitate, enhance and/or hinder learning. In reality VLEs are part of an institution's management systems.
The real challenge therefore is to work towards a point when VLEs can be integrated into an institution's wider systems and structures, and that the whole can be designed with a view to flexibility and individuality if flexible learning is to become a genuine possibility. I wonder whether Pearson is missing a trick.
The Times Higher Education issue which straddled the Christmas and New Year period carried an article in which 7 distinguished academics told the readership how they imagined higher education would look in 2030, fifteen years from now.
In this blog post I want to engage with the predictions made and offer my own prediction based on my understanding of how flexible learning is likely to contribute to the HE landscape of the future.
The seven articles were diverse, but in many ways introduced little new thinking. Between them they covered questions about the purpose and definition of universities; the nature of the emerging HE landscape both in the UK and globally; the role of technologies; and the importance, nature and measurability of student learning. Specifically, they predicted that individual universities will find new ways to survive (specialising, collaborating and forming federations, gaining a reputation for excellent learning outcomes); that the acquisition of knowledge will give place to the development of skills, especially skills in learning, and of attributes that will become increasingly valued in the 21st century ('wisdom' was probably the most predominant term across the seven vignettes); that the teaching role will give way to intelligent machines; and that the traditional campus and associated semester structure will disappear in favour of year-round learning. Some were backed up by evidence, others were more experiential and based on observation. With the exception of mobile technologies, none considered the wider context within which HE now operates and which I suggest is likely to have the greatest impact on higher education in the future.
Let me elaborate.
There are a number of ways in which the whole world, and the developed world in particular, is changing. We are moving to a 24/7 global culture which means that the traditional daily structure of 8-hour work, 8-hour sleep and 2x4-hour periods of leisure is breaking down. Technology facilities this and we are now able to have meetings with people on the other side of the world, albeit at an unsociable time. Put this alongside the rapid developments of mobile technologies, meaning that people can work, study and play wherever they are, and we move towards a global culture where flexibility is the order of the day. One big characteristic of this is that physical locations cease to have the key role they used to. No longer do employees have to go to an office to do their work. No longer are gamers tied to the television in their living rooms. No longer are students obliged to go to a lecture theatre on campus. The physical place is 're-placed' by the virtual, and people already experience and think of the digital in place-like terms. We go 'into' our institutional VLE, experience social media platforms as places where we meet friends, and store much of our individual identity 'in' digital 'places'.
It seems to me that it is the ubiquity of these developments, across a diversity of sectors, that means that higher education will need to change in order to ensure an effective interaction with its surrounding culture. One might argue that HE has never been terribly good at doing that. The ivory tower continues to reign supreme, requiring others to adjust to it, not it to them. But times are a-changing. HE now has to forge a much closer path towards the employment of graduates than previously. And employers too, especially those which are office-based and employing largely white collar workers, are now not only permitting but actively encouraging flexible working hours and home-based working. Creating a 'mother ship' with a skeleton staff is much cheaper than providing desks and facilities for a large workforce. If HE wants to intersect seamlessly with employers it will need to adjust. Universities may choose to consider adjustments themselves. As employers, they too may choose to introduce far greater levels of flexibility for their administrative and support staff, if not for their academic staff.
My prediction is that, as Trachtenberg in the THE article suggests, the concept of individual campuses will disappear, or perhaps more accurately, be significantly changed. There will be no need for large lecture theatres. At least 50% of those attending a lecture will join remotely. Most libraries are already investing exclusively in e-books, lessening the need for a physical space. Academics will work from home, interact with each other and with their students electronically for routine matters and come together on campus for small group discussions. Since this is less realistic for sciences and lab work, campuses will have a more focused scientific character. In the emerging flexible world, knowledge will be task-specific and therefore learning and study are likely to be much more targeted. CPD will have a much greater role as an income-generating activity for institutions than is currently the case. As Taylor suggests in the THE article, there will be opportunities to enrol on a portfolio degree where learners pick and mix modules which they bolt together according to their interests and employment aspirations.
Such a world requires individuals who can cope with the challenges of rapid change, instability, constant movement and the need to learn and construct new knowledge on a daily basis. Taylor speaks of attributes such as wisdom, tolerance, emotional intelligence, ethical understanding and cultural literacy being those valued and cultivated by HE providers in their students. To these I would add resilience, a willingness to let go and move on, and yes, very possibly, a thorough understanding of how to keep physically and mentally healthy: Schwartz's Health 101 as not just an institution's most popular course, but its only obligatory course across the board.
Such a future is, of course, fraught with challenges and questions, none of which I can engage with here. They need to be recognised, however. Flexible provision is not generally a cheap option given its strong emphasis on individualisation. It also requires a huge change in an institution's infrastructure which, after decades, if not centuries, of catering for and managing homogeneity, will not be done overnight. Quality assurance and standards are old, but very legitimate concerns, even if they may need to be reconceptualised and reconfigured. New pedagogies will be required which will certainly embrace the digital and demand skills of academics that even now only a small proportion of teaching staff feel confident about.
As a result, I can't see this coming about within 15 years. But who knows. 15 years ago the internet was in its infancy. 30 years ago we were celebrating the advent of CDs which replaced cassette tapes. 45 years ago my father's PA typed up my hand-written dissertation and I used a transfer sheet to correct all her typos.
This blog post is based on reading and research about the future of higher education and flexible learning. The key resources drawn on are listed here.
I'm delighted at the beginning of 2016 to give the first flexible learning blogpost to Dr Peter Chatterton, to present his work with the QAA in Scotland on designing a flexible learning toolkit.
In 2014, I was given the opportunity to work with the QAA in Scotland to help them develop a practical toolkit that would enable institutions to implement flexible curricula. I had previously worked with them on implementing work-based learning and found that there is very positive collaboration between Scottish HEIs and the QAA on enhancement initiatives – indeed Scotland has an enhancement themes programme, where one of the themes was flexible curricula. I was teamed with Heather Gibson (QAA Scotland) and Martha Caddell (Open University) to come up with a practical toolkit that would help programme teams to reflect on changing drivers and needs for flexible curricula and then to enhance practice.
Heather, Martha and I all thought it would be a great idea to take the Viewpoints approach and adapt it for flexible curricula to produce something really useful for programme teams and we were fortunate enough to have Alan Masson join us as a Critical Friend on the project.
More information about this toolkit and the project in general can be found here.
Dr Peter Chatterton is a consultant and academic who works with a wide range of universities and educational agencies, supporting them in programmes of innovation, change and agile working for educational transformation. He also works with businesses, large and small, and helps develop university-employer partnerships with a particular focus on developing graduate employability skills, work-based learning, flexible learning and enhancing university collaboration with employers. He has helped set up the Change Agents’ Network to support students as innovation and change leaders in universities and industry and was a prime mover in setting up the Automotive College (an HE/FE/industry partnership) to support improvement programmes in the automotive supply chain. He has also been involved in “Changing the Learning Landscape”, a project to transform strategic approaches to technology across HE/FE and is a consultant to the QAA Scotland on their Enhancement Theme programme with a focus on supporting universities in designing and delivering flexible curricula.
Working towards my Open Badges Awareness Badge
This is a slightly different blogpost from the others I've put up so far, primarily because I'm doing it as part of a free, online course (Open Badges 101: #OB101; Brian Mather, Doug Belshaw and Erika Pogorelc) that I'm doing on open badges. Early on in the short course I have been asked to work towards my own first open badge by writing 250+ words on the following:
An easy way to think of open badges is to remember my time as a guide or a scout. As a girl guide I worked towards a number of badges which my mother then painstakingly sewed onto the sleeve of my guide uniform. Each badge had a series of tasks that I had to do to achieve it, and I was examined by a local person who knew a considerable amount more about the tasks than I did. (I also remember going for the 'toymaking' badge but not taking it terribly seriously. The kind but serious ticking off I got from this local expert has remained with me for life!)
Open badges are very similar, except that they are digital and supported by a digital infrastructure. The course makes a distinction between Open Badges and Digital Badges, which, if I have understood correctly, is similar to the distinction between the guide badge itself, the fabric circle sewn onto my sleeve (digital badges) and the structure lying behind the badge (the tasks I have to do to accomplish it - open badges). So Open Badges have an 'anatomy'. Each badge has a name, a description (often of what 'earning' it has entailed or requires), a set of criteria, an issuer, evidence, information about the date it was issued, about the standards that support it, and a set of tags. This anatomy is 'baked' into the digital representation of the badge so that if and when an earner decides to make it public (his or her choice, hence the claim that Open Badges put the user in control) the 'consumer', who may be a prospective employer, or a network of specialists, or a community group, is able to verify what it represents in part because of this baked in anatomy, in part because they can follow an audit trail and actually see the evidence. This blogpost will be part of that evidence for the Open Badges Awareness badge that I am now working towards.
Open Badges have a considerable range of uses. They are similar in concept, of course, to the certificates, diplomas and degrees which we gain and award in higher education. That piece of paper which I have in a posh frame and hung on my office wall is a type of analogue badge! But typically, they are useful for much smaller chunks of learning and perhaps also for evidencing some of the softer skills that higher education finds difficult to measure. Right now I am doing some work with the Association of Muslim Chaplains.in Education (AMCed). AMCed is designing, producing and will eventually deliver online modules that those interested in working as a chaplain in a university context will be able to sign up for. Rather than seek validation from a university partner, we are exploring using Open Badges. There is a real advantage in pursuing this path. Open Badges are 'stackable', which means that they can be combined with other badges - in this instance, perhaps, with work individuals have done in chaplaincy situations in prisons or hospitals rather than HE, or in different faith contexts - to create a much more extensive portfolio of evidence than a conventional CertHE or MA might do. I can see a real advantage in their ability to validate a person's unique learning and experience, that knowledge, those skills, that someone has built up potentially over decades, to make him or her who they are. In making these often hidden capacities more visible, then so they will be able to shine in a much more nuanced fashion and, hopefully, where needed, attract employers and employment. A key difference between Open Badges and Digital Badges is that Open Badges are transferable. This means that they can be gained in one context and recognised in, and by, another. This reminds me of the principles lying behind credit accumulation and transfer. A typical module of study in HE requires a student to meet the learning criteria and have that formally recognised by the course team. That module is worth a certain number of credits, usually representing a notional number of hours of study. If the student then wants to transfer the credits gained to another context - either a different course or perhaps a different institution - the awarding institution will provide the equivalent of an Open Badge's 'anatomy': formal information about the module that the new course or institution can understand and evaluate. What Open Badges don't appear to do that credit accumulation and transfer does, is 'measure' the 'worth' of the badge in terms of time taken to complete it or link it to a particular level of study. Does that matter? In certain circumstances it might, but those situations are more likely to be be where the gaining of knowledge and skills, especially in a skills-based, vocational context, is considered to be integrally linked to an amount of time. Time is measurable, so linking time and its measurement to academic achievement is a way of ensuring standards and quality. It also lies at the heart of traditional HE. It doesn't lie at the heart of an Open Badge.
Open Badges also differ from Digital Badges in that they don't belong to and therefore are not controlled by any one organisation, at least in concept and underpinning technology. I assume they must be 'controlled', to an extent, by an organisation or institution in terms of their content and anatomy. Every Open Badge is issued by a body of some sort. (I wonder: can an Open Badge be issued by an individual? I don't see why not.) This means that, unlike credit transfer systems and Digital Badges, which operate primarily in the interests of the awarding/issuing organisation, Open Badges are collaborative in spirit and in operation.
Lastly, and importantly, Open Badges can be displayed anywhere across the web. Hence I plan to embed this, my first one, on this blogpost, but as and when I gain more I may create a page specially for them. In just the same way as I copied the embedding code in order to display the Open Badge Awareness 'ad' (has it got a technical term? It's not the badge - yet!) at the top of this blogpost, so I can do the same with the actual badge. Unlike my girl guide badge which was (a) physically individual and singular; and therefore (b) only visible in one place, on the sleeve of my guide uniform, Open Badges can be embedded in any digital place, and the same one in multiple places simultaneously. I guess an analogy would be that of printing off my degree certificate multiple times and displaying them in my office, my home, and perhaps elsewhere (would I really want to do that?!) but that's as far as the analogy goes as my degree certificate has characteristics specifically intended to prevent reproduction, at least reproduction intended to be as identical as possible as the original. Every Open Badge (as distinct from Digital Badges), in contrast, can be portrayed and known to be an 'original' even though there might be a number of versions of it publicly visible.
I still have questions about how quality is assured and standards maintained. As far as I can ascertain there is no equivalent of the external examiner in an Open Badges system! That's presumably why it's important to have an evidence trail, so that anyone can look up and scrutinise exactly what standard of work the badge-earner has done. It doesn't seem easy to think of levels of work in the same way that conventional awards do, although the Open Badges 101 course indicates that it is possible to develop a whole series of badges that have an inbuilt progression. Nonetheless, it seems difficult to think in terms of badges being of level 4, or level 7, or higher, or lower. Perhaps that's their real attraction though - an individual's badge might involve them working at all those levels combined. In which case, Open Badges have a real advantage in being much more representative of real life.
If, as reported, third party endorsement is coming to the standard soon, then this may contribute to the set of tools that Open Badges use to ensure quality. Perhaps there is also a case to argue, in an era when higher education is focusing increasingly on independent and autonomous learning. that Open Badges can also contribute to helping individuals assess the quality of their work. Maybe Open Badges could even include a self-evaluation as part of the project done by learners when submitting their application for a badge.
How might Open Badges contribute to flexible learning?
This is intriguing. The first, most obvious way, is in the genuine personalisation of the learning that takes place. Open Badges are highly individual. They don't require going through a formal and often cumbersome and time consuming process of credit recognition and transfer, although they may themselves form part of a portfolio of evidence that supports an application for credit transfer. It is the similarities between Open Badges and credit accumulation and transfer that intrigue me, and I've begun to sense more acutely how some of the inbuilt difficulties with the UK CATs system are rooted in the inbuilt competitive spirit that exists between institutions. It is not necessarily in their interests to award or transfer either in or out, credit from elsewhere.
Perhaps the biggest contribution of Open Badges to the flexible learning agenda is the fact that they can genuinely not only represent student choice, but facilitate it. Learners really do decide how they learn, what they learn, where they learn and when they learn.
The Open University's 2015 Innovating Pedagogies report has just been published.
It contains a section entitled 'Adaptive teaching' which it defines as:
Referring to the ways in which computer applications can analyse data from learning activities to provide learners with relevant content, to sequence their learning activities, to address gaps in their knowledge, and to accelerate their learning. (2015: 33).
This has clear relevance to flexible learning, and connects strongly with the HEA Flexible Pedagogies: preparing for the future report on Technology-Enhanced Learning written by Neil Gordon (2014).
Adaptive teaching and learning is therefore highly student-centred, personalising the learning experience to individual learners by discerning the needs of each one and guiding them according to the analysis of their strengths and weaknesses. At one level it therefore sounds very close to the flexible learning agenda. So why am I left with a sense of unease?
Upon reflection, I think I have found the cause. Adaptive technologies collect data, analyse them, and then offer opportunities to the learner to take action. This action might be to address lacunae in their knowledge and understanding, or to revise content the technologies perceive they had difficulty in mastering by doing, perhaps, a different exercise and a second self-test exercise. They are able to personalise the learning experience by catering for different learning styles, and helping learners to know when they have achieved a satisfactory level in order to progress further. All of this is potentially good news. Except....
While at one level students are being offered choices - something lying at the very heart of the flexible learning agenda - at another there an almost sinister impression of choices being removed. 'We' (this anonymous, data-gathering piece of sotware) have identified that you need to do this next. Here's how you do it'. The technologies are undoubtedly able to offer choices about what and how, but given the strong sense of progress towards a desired goal, almost certainly enshrined in one or more learning outcomes, the choices are likely to be limited, especially since 'training' and developing the technologies is very time consuming and labour intensive.
One of the real strength of flexible learning is that the choices students are offered contribute to their personal development but in a very different way. Making choices can require a considerable amount of effort. Information has to be gathered and evaluated. The range of options identified. Decisions made about which is the best to pursue. A rational and sometimes emotional commitment made to that choice. And once the choice has been made, then individuals have to find the wherewithal to manage the consequences, be those anticipated and as intended, or unanticipated and potentially unwanted. These are, of course, skills that employers are looking for in recent graduates as well as in their established employees. They are also life skills that need to be acquired and exercised almost on a daily basis. Flexible learning is not just about the pragmatics of how, what, when and where we learn. It is just as much about the life skills it fosters.
Adaptive technologies may, eventually be able to function in this way, but that is likely to depend on how they are used and perceived by those who manage them. If they are seen as a way of reducing the 'burden' of teaching by removing one of the time-consuming parts of their role, then we should be worried. Traditionally, discerning where students are struggling, where more support is needed and how this might be provided, is embedded within the relationship that teachers build with their students and which, for many, is why they do their job. If, on the other hand, they can be designed bearing in mind the human dimension - the establishment of relationships in many directions, and the development of life skills for the learners - then they may find a welcome place in tomorrow's higher education.
The Government published its Green Paper 'Fulfilling our potential: Teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice' on Friday. It is followed by a period of consultation which closes on January 15th. Comment and feedback can be made online here. The Paper is 103 pages long, but this includes 4 Annexes so the main body is 80 pages long.
Interested stakeholders have scrambled to make a quick response. A selection of these is provided below.
Times Higher Education (John Morgan)
Russell Group (Wendy Piatt)
Universities UK (press release)
'Fulfilling our potential: what policymakers' rhetoric reveals about the future of higher education' (Simon Jones, LSE blog)
'NUS responds to higher education green paper' (Megan Dunn, NUS national president)
'How the teaching excellence framework will work'. The Conversation (Andrew Gunn)
'Jo Johnson's university reforms: reactions from the experts' (Guardian Higher Education Network)
No doubt more in-depth critiques will emerge throughout the month.
In this blogpost I offer an initial response through the lens of flexible learning.
Given the emphasis on learner choice which lies at the heart of much flexible learning thinking and practice, the title of the Green Paper seemed to offer much. Yet a cursory examination reveals little to support the notion of genuine learner choice in the way this site defines it: offering learners choice in how, what, when and where they learn. Right from the start the Paper sets out its stall. Part A chapter 1 paragraph 1 reads:
During the previous Parliament, the Government introduced a number of reforms to encourage greater choice in higher education. Students were given more information to help choose the right course; funding was reformed to create a more progressive system with no upfront fees; new providers were encouraged into the sector to widen choice; and student number controls were removed from 2015-16. These reforms gave providers the opportunity to grow and there have been signs that students and the sector are responding to the new opportunities.
The choice is therefore at a very high level, principally focusing on providing learners with greater choice about which institution to attend and enabling them to make that choice in a more informed way. The TEF will contribute to that since institutions will be required to articulate the evidence to support their quality of teaching and accompanying learning. Greater information (the TEF will provide potential students with information previously unavailable) therefore equates to greater choice. How will that work?
Some institutions will 'seek to raise their teaching standards in order to maintain student numbers and/or raise fees, focussing effort on disciplines that receive a poor TEF assessment'; others will 'differentiate themselves as a lower cost or specialist provider, focussing effort on the disciplines that receive strong [TEF] assessments' (Annex A, para 18). The Paper recognises that this choice may not be as available to some students as others. Adult learners, who may be less mobile due to family, caring and work responsibilities may not therefore be in a position to 'choose' the best institution for their aspirations and needs - which may be geographically distant from them - and have to settle for ('choose') one nearer their location even if it offers less of what they're looking for. Across the board, students who are particularly financially challenged are unlikely to be able to 'choose' to apply to a 'higher quality institution' even if this represents better value for money.
In reality, therefore, there is little, if anything, about the Green Paper which promotes a genuinely flexible approach to HE. Just as consumers are encouraged to 'choose' which bank, energy company and broadband provider they sign up with on the basis of having more and more information to help them make these choices, so students are going to have to wade through more and more information about higher education providers in order to decide which best suits their aspirations. Not only so, but the very students (learners) who most need genuine flexibility - adults, mature learners, those juggling families, work, travel and leisure - will (a) be least able to take advantage of such 'choices' and (b) have the greatest challenges in terms of time to read, study and evaluate. Even for the traditional 18 to 21 year old student market the prospect is daunting. As members of my own family go through the process of trying to decide which universities to apply for, to decide which to prioritise for their UCAS application, to take time out to go and visit on Open Days, and at the same time to give their all to their A level studies, I am more than aware of how the TEF is highly likely to complicate what is already a complex juggling act for 17/18 year olds and their families. In the (adult) world of banking, energy bills and broadband contracts, we are encouraged to jump ship if the information made available to us indicates that we are not getting the best deal. Is this envisaged for higher education? Will students be encouraged to move from one institution to another mid way through their course? We already know that the credit transfer mechanisms for this to happen are insufficiently robust, not helped by the fact that institutions are reluctant to see students leave them and go elsewhere. Or is this information intended to function at one point, and at one point only - preparing for the UCAS application, the very moment when students and their families are least informed about how to make informed choices about the information they are provided with, and have least time to engage with that information.
I am not making a comment here about the TEF or its potential benefit to the sector. What I am commenting on is how the Government is selling it to us, and on what seems to be its understanding of its benefits. Student choice should not be the TEF rationale. Student learning should be. Academic teaching should be. But not, in this instance, student choice.
The Green Paper makes unrealistic claims about student 'choice'. It favours the 18 to 21 year old student population and does no favours to the already beleaguered part-time, adult and mature learner population. But if the TEF is to be used primarily as a consumer-led recruitment tool then its purpose and benefit is already in question.
Since writing this blogpost, the following letter has been published in the Guardian. It echoes my concerns exactly.
Tuesday 10 November 2015
The government’s green paper, Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, outlines the means by which market forces will be permitted to permeate further into higher education in England and to a more limited extent the rest of the UK (Editorial, 8 November). It is likely to lead to higher tuition fees for many, increased state intervention into the organisation and delivery of HE, more bureaucracy for staff and less autonomy for student unions.
Universities will be fundamentally transformed by these proposals, and the sector will be further disaggregated. Funding will be concentrated on a few leading institutions, and higher education will once again become available only for a minority who can afford to bear heavy debts. Open scholarship, collaboration and the sharing of discoveries for all are set to be displaced by objectives that privilege corporate interests and employability. The framework advocates the further embrace of metrics, the use of price as a proxy for quality, the relaxation of conditions of entry to the sector for private providers, and the creation of a regulatory body to ensure consumer protection from the abuse of market power. This is a failed model – the same one that failed to prevent the financial crash and the banking crisis.
Universities should be places where staff and students can take risks, to develop critical and creative skills, to innovate and inspire – and, above all, to teach, research and learn without the fear that their every move is to be measured and quantified. The proposals outlined in the green paper will make it harder for universities to deliver high-quality education for all. We have committed to the holding of a convention for higher education in February 2016 to bring together as wide a constituency as is possible in defence of the sector from the reforms. We welcome all those who share that commitment to join with us. We can be contacted via https://heconvention2.wordpress.com/
Tom Hickey Brighton UCU
Professor John Holmwood Nottingham, and Campaign for the Public University
Professor Martin McQuillan Kingston, and Council for the Defence of British Universities
Professor Des Freedman Goldsmiths
Dr Sean Wallis UCL, UCU national executive committee and London region
Dr Saladin Meckled-Garcia UCL UCU
Professor Miriam David Institute of Education
Professor Dennis Leech Warwick
Priyamvada Gopal Cambridge
Feyzi Ismail SOAS UCU
Professor Bob Brecher Brighton
Professor Richard Farndale Cambridge
Dr Adrian Budd South Bank UCU
Professor Jeff Duckett Queen Mary University
Professor Natalie Fenton Goldsmiths
Professor Jane Hardy Hertfordshire
Dr Carlo Morelli Dundee, and UCU national executive committee
Professor Malcolm Povey Leeds
Mary Claire Halvorson Goldsmiths
Dr Geoff Abbott Newcastle
John Wadsworth Goldsmiths
Dr Deirdre Osbourne Goldsmiths
Dr Michael Bailey Essex
Professor Jane Rendell UCL
Dr Bruce Baker Newcastle University
Dr Stacy Gillis Newcastle University
Dr Alison Le Cornu is a freelance Consultant in Academic Practice working in higher education. She specialises in flexible learning which she understands as empowering learners by giving them the ability to choose how, what, where and when they study. This is very dependent on institutional systems and structures having the capacity to facilitate this. She works with institutions at all levels to help them bring about the institutional/student partnership that this requires.