Another Avalanche is Coming

After the apocalyptic prophecies of the recent IPPR report, where MOOCs were going to sweep away everything in their path, Steve Smith, formerly of Universities UK and now VC of Exeter writes in this week’s Higher about what the other  and possibly more pressing challenges are which threaten UK higher education.

He does provide a bit of criticism of the IPPR report – there’s much on it that could be criticised  but at least it provoked significant debate – and then describes what he feels are the main threats.

  • austerity
  • the student finance system
  • research
  • admissions
  • visas

Under austerity:

“The IFS estimates that there will be a further cut of about 2.8 per cent to unprotected departmental expenditure limits in the 2013 spending review, which is expected in June and will cover 2015-16. Many estimate that this will lead to a 6-8 per cent cut in the BIS budget.

But the IFS notes that the real problem will arise after this, when whoever is in government will have to reduce departmental spending by 12.7 per cent by 2017-18, which means that the likely cuts for BIS will be considerable. By 2017-18, those cuts could total 43 per cent.”

The student finance system:

“an avalanche really is coming in terms of the costs of student support.

I cannot see that system surviving, and expect any incoming government in 2015 to look again at the student finance system and to try to reduce its costs. Think for a moment about how it might do that, and how that might influence student demand for different types of institutions. To mention just one controversial way to reduce costs, what would be the effect of re-examining the Browne review’s notion of requiring minimum qualifications before students gain access to the loan system?”


“Another area facing avalanche-like upheaval is research selectivity. Even a cash ring-fenced science and research budget entails no adjustment for inflation for eight years.

That looks to me like a real-terms reduction of about 20 per cent in research funding by 2017-18. The only options for dealing with that are to reduce all funding by the same amount in real terms, or further increase research selectivity.

I suspect that the latter is the only way to balance this financial constraint with the need to compete internationally. One obvious indication of this thinking is the near universal move by the research councils to concentrate funding for PhD training into a small number of doctoral training centres.”


“the end-of-cycle report published by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in January showed that a growing proportion of the higher-performing students are applying to a smaller subset of universities. There also seems to be a trend towards increased competition for the highest-performing students”

And visas:

“I remain worried about the inability of all of us to win the political battle to get student numbers removed from the net migration figures…..But if we do not win this battle, and more importantly soil the perception of UK higher education overseas (especially in India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia), then we could see significant reductions in international recruitment. I think that as a sector we win all the economic arguments, but it seems that the politics of immigration trumps that.”


And for us? All of these are worrying, and considerably more of a threat than the emergence of one form of online learning. There will be less and less money available for the sector, and although we rely in student income increasingly, further changes to the student finance system could reduce the numbers wanting to attend full time courses. Research is not a huge income earner for us, but crucial for our academic reputation, to support learning and teaching at a leading edge, and to build relationships, business opportunities and change for our commercial partners.

Further polarisation of student admissions will not benefit us and as David Willets said earlier today at the HEFCE annual meeting, “We want greater freedoms and flexibilities for all institutions, not just those with high-tariff students. 2014-15 will be a step towards that. Where student demand is low and institutions significantly under-recruit then unfilled places will be moved to those with stronger recruitment patterns.” This has to be a worry for many universities in the newer part of the sector. Finally  I know that we are well aware of the importance of portraying the UK HE sector as being one which is open for business to students from India, China etc – the tension between the Home Office and BIS does nothing to help us.


Surviving Disruptive Technologies- week 3 Newspapers

Into the third week of this MOOC and it’s becoming significantly more interesting. The initial weeks have provided examples of companies or industries that have already been disrupted and massively changed by technological changes. Now we’re looking at those currently undergoing change.

The sessions on newspapers are particularly interesting- parallels could be drawn here between this industry and that of higher education( which we will be looking at later in the course).

Prof Lucas makes an impassioned plea for the continuing existence of newspapers, by highlighting activities they carry out that might not be done so well by other news organisations. In particular he highlights the importance of investigative journalism,citing the Watergate affair, to which for the UK we could add investigations over MPS expenses and phone hacking. The other key function is the provision of analysis of the news.

Looking at the parameters of the model for disruption:
Resistance to change
Mind set
Sunk costs
Lack of imagination

I would suggest that many remaining newspapers might not score too badly, particularly when we regard how they are using new technologies to distribute their content (websites, Kindle, iPad editions). However, there is still the difficulty of monetization and loss of advertising revenue to deal with. In addition as indicated in a New York Times article, many businesses have other structural problems such as underfunded pension schemes, unserviceable levels of debt, legacy manufacturing processes and legacy union and labour agreements.

The key thing for newspapers will be to identify what business they are in and how to use technology to support them.

They are clearly not just in the business of reporting news. They are in the business of investigation and provision of analysis and commentary. (The tabloids in the UK are probably in the business of providing something to read at lunch for those in jobs where Internet connectivity is not available).

The next week of the course will look at education, but there are parallels between the newspaper industry and HE that we can start to consider.

Like newspapers we will cease to be in the business of transmission of information ( although attendance at many of our lectures wouldn’t convince you of that).

Like newspapers we need to identify what is the added value that we can provide to readily available information.

I would suggest that from a teaching and learning perspective, the role of the university is about: curation of resources; identification of suitable packages of information; provision of support for learning; accreditation of learning. In addition there is our role in research, generation of new knowledge and support for business and per organisations.

It’ll be interesting to see how the next week’s sessions on education pan out.

Finally,as part of an undergraduate education, there is still a part of me at thinks that all students should read a daily broadsheet newspaper!

Surviving Disruptive Technologies – week 2 experiences

So, I’m at the end of week 2 of my Coursera MOOC on Surviving Disruptive Technologies.

As I wrote before – the content is fine: this week we have looked at what happened to Blockbuster, and compared it with Netflix, with what happened to Borders and compared to Amazon. I guess for me it was interesting to realise that the failure of organisations was not just the disruption caused by the advance of technology, but about how organisations themselves were able to behave and develop (or not, as the case may be).

I’m still shocked at the amount (or rather lack) of use that the discussion boards are getting. Each pair of mini lectures leads to the expectation that participants will engage in online discussion. Maybe it’s the nature of the participants  maybe it’s the subject matter, maybe it’s even the number enrolled, but the biggest discussion thread for this week had 54 posts. Compare that with #edcmooc, where in week 2 the biggest thread had 240!

There’s also very little happening outside of the course – there was a Google hangout, but there is little evidence of a strident community developing as happened in #edcmooc. This may not be surprising – that course attracted a lot of education professionals, who (and I include myself here) found it a really useful way of developing personal networks.

Anyway -sticking with it for the moment as the subject matter is interesting. Though I might just give in and buy the book.

Book Review – “To Save Everything, Click Here”

Over Easter I’ve been reading “To Save Everything, Click Here – Technology, solutionism and the urge to fix problems that don’t exist” by Evgeny Morozov, with an eye on how his views on internet solutionism could so easily be applied to the current discussions around MOOCs, learning analytics, electronic assessment and feedback etc. Two more lengthy and much better informed reviews can be found at:

Tara Brabazon also provided an excellent review in the Times Higher a few weeks ago.

In this post, I’ll just highlight some areas that resonated with me, and which can be related to the HE context.


This book is a required read for anyone interested in the internet, and the promise of solutions to everything which are peddled by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and parroted by those how haven’t taken the time to really understand what might be happening, but just see  a new shiny toy, and think that they need one too.

This isn’t to say that all internet innovation is wrong – just that we need to think a little more about it.

Morozov frequently criticises Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky et al in his book – and possibly rightly so, as the way in which he describes their polemical arguments is that they feel they cannot be criticised, because “the internet” is beyond criticism –  it just is.

Moving through the book, Morozov explains his key theme of technological solutionism – essentially, someone identifies that something is broken, and that there is a technological solution to fix it. He then identifies the limitations in this way of thinking.


At the moment, higher education (indeed all education) is being portrayed as broken, with for examples, MOOCs or the work of Sugata Mitra being proposed as solutions.

As Morozov states early in the book:

The ballyhoo over the potential of new technologies to disrupt education – especially now that several start-ups offer online courses to hundreds of thousands of students, who grade each other’s work and get no face time with instructors is a case in point. Digital technologies may be a perfect solution to some problems, bit those problems don;t include education – not if by education we mean the development of skills to think critically about any given issue. Online resources may help students learn plenty of new facts….but such cramming is a far cry from what universities aspire to teach their students.

Are our students different?

..”the Internet” has produced an entirely new generation – the so called digital natives………They are a generation of scrutinizers who are more sceptical of authority as they sift through information at the speed of light by themselves or with their network of peers. Best of all today’s young people are authorities on the digital revolution that is changing every institution in society

Are we sure that this is the case? Do we really think that our students are a homogenous group who are all authorities n a digital revolution?  We know that we still need to help students to develop skills in information and digital literacy, that they don’t all have the highly developed critical skills to think about an issue and develop their own learning.

Transparency and Openness

This chapter of the book is interesting, particularly in the context of an article in the Times Higher this week, which is also about openness.

In terms of education, we are being bombarded by the idea that MOOCs are a salvation for us. Let’s not forget that “open” in this case, doesn’t mean open. Only enrolled students can access the learning materials, they’re not there to be re-used or re-purposed as we might expect from truly open educational resources.

Internet –centrism and solutionism feeds on Enlightenment-era attitudes towards the liberating power of information. More information is always presumed to be better than less; having more ways to analyse the same piece of information is always preferable to having fewer ways……..this gives rise to a mindset that equates information gathering with a “single inevitable trajectory of forward progress”.

Just having access to information is not always a good thing, and Morozov questions whether we understand what our consensus might be around an understanding of openness.

Our internet debates, in contrast, tend to be dominated by a form of openness fundamentalism, whereby “openness” is seen as a fail-safe solution to virtually any problem. Instead of debating how openness may be fostering or harming innovation, promoting or demoting justice, facilitating or complicating deliberation – the kinds of debates we are likely to have about the uses of openness in the messy world that we live in – “openness” in networks and technological systems is presumed to always be good and its opposite – it’s quite telling that we can’t quite define what that is – always bad.

While internet-centrists believe that “openness” is good in itself, internet realists investigate what the rhetoric of “openness” does for governments and companies – and what they do for it.

Here, for  a university, the data that we do or do not provide on our provision , eg through KIS, or through the information that UCAS hold (and currently withhold) on attractiveness of courses for 2013 entry are aspects of data that we are urged to make open and transparent. There is a question to discuss about the real usefulness of making everything available. If for example UCAS did publish data at this stage of the cycle on current attractiveness of undergraduate awards at institutions  it could send a negative signal to the student recruitment market, which might be based purely on one data point  but could have significant effects on the viability of  a subject at a particular university. The data alone is not enough for rational decisions to be made.

The perils of algorithmic gate keeping

In this chapter Morozov looks particularly at how big data in combination with an algorithm can be used to predict behaviours. Parallel lessons could be learned from this, particularly in the discussions developing around the use of learning analytics to identify learner behaviour, to identify the student who is likely to fall by the wayside. It may of use to note the following quotation:

But how do we know that the algorithms used for prediction do not reflect the biases of their authors? 

It is useful to reflect at this point on how we in the UK Higher Education sector use data to describe our institutions to potential and existing students.

The drive to provide data through Key Information Sets might mean that all institutions are providing information that is thought to be of use to students. However, the actual measures used (for  instance contact hours) are not necessarily a measure of quality or a guarantee of student outcomes.

In addition, much of the data that we provide to KIS and to Higher Education Statistics Agency is then re-used in various league tables. Here, institutions do not know the algorithms being used by the compilers (at least not in detail) and so there is a danger that institutions now start to try and game the system, to improve a rating, rather than to truly identify areas that need improving.


Evgeny Morozov has produced a thought provoking book, which takes pot-shots at the some of the internet gurus of our age – and hits bull’s-eyes with remarkable frequency.

While the book is not specifically about technology in education, parallels can easily be drawn. Plenty of debate has been appearing online, and for further reading I’d recommend this series of letters between Morozov and Farhad Manjoo on

My first week experiences of Surviving Disruptive Technologies MOOC

I’ve started my second MOOC through Coursera, herein labelled as #sdtmooc, which is its putative Twitter hashtag.
This is a significantly different experience from #edcmooc, the University of Edinburgh course I took previously. That was a constructivist learning experience, with a core of highly engaged participants who met and discussed virtually outside of the Coursera discussion forum ecosystem. This isn’t.
What follows now will appear critical – let me be clear, any criticisms are not of the course leader, or indeed of the content, more about the way in which the course is set up to run.


The course is written by Henry Lucas of University of Maryland, and would appear to be based on his textbook on the subject “The Search for Survival”.

Topics covered so far include the survivor model, the innovator’s dilemma, sustaining and disruptive technologies, the box score, organisations, and the demise of Kodak. This will be followed by lectures on the demise of Blockbuster and Borders. The minute that Clay Shirky’s phrase “Napster moment” is used is the time I will quit the course.

Structure and delivery

For #sdtmooc each week is divided into two classes, each of which has 4 short video lectures associated with it. Which when you join then together ,make 2 individual 1 hour lectures, so this doesn’t seem to be doing anything to challenge any educational paradigm. Each video lecture has a single multiple choice question embedded into it to check understanding. Or at least to check if you have been listening for the previous 8 minutes.

The video lectures consist of PowerPoint slides, with a talking head in the bottom corner, and some annotations made to slides as they are delivered. Not wildly exciting.

At the end of each class, participants are asked to use the discussion forums, to both start discussions and comment on those of others. One activity was to list your top 3 technical innovations of the last 25 years, with the reasons why chosen, and then to comment on the suggestions of others. A lot of participants identified the internet. This clearly ignores the fact it is over 25 years old, and their view of it was wholly utopian (shades of #edcmooc creeping in!).

As so often, I found the level of discussion disappointing and intellectually naive. But I accept that this is criticism of myself – I have no way of knowing the previous experience or expertise of other participants.

Initial Impressions

Honestly? The subject matter is interesting, and when we are hearing all the time that MOOCs are a disruptive technology that will affect Higher Education, this would seem to be a relevant course to take.

But I could have learned as much by reading the book. The course so far offers no more than a distributed version of a slightly dull traditional lecture course. The discussion forums have yet to take off with any detailed critique or analysis. And Twitter – well maybe I was spoiled with the way in which participants in #edcmooc used it, but so far there appears to be little happening to excite the twitterati!

I’ll carry on for another week, downloading the PowerPoint files for later reference.

MOOCs – inclusive for consumers, but not providers?

Yet another blog post on MOOCs I’m afraid.

This time though, some thoughts about how we might go about distributing our own materials. In the earlier post where I cite the thoughts of Martin Hall, VC of Salford, some good reasons for going down the MOOC route start to crystallise, particularly around marketing the institution and possibly using the development of open educational resources as a driver to significantly change our teaching and learning practice, both on campus and in partner institutions.

However, if we want to “do a MOOC”, we have to question how we could do it.

Firstly we might consider our own VLE platform. The plus points here are that academic staff know how to use it. Err, that’s about it. We’d need to see if it could be scaled to deal with large numbers of enrolments and logins. Since we link it to our student record system, would we expect that too to deal with massive enrolments?

So – the enrolment issue may be a problem. Our second option is to develop our own software. We would have the expertise in house to do this, but we would have to ask the question – why would we invent something, when big commercial companies have already entered the market.

So the third option is to partner with one of the existing companies  They offer the appropriate software  they can deal with the enrolment issues, and might even share some of the money with participating universities in the future.

So where’s the problem? Quite simply, the main MOOC providers are very choosy about who hey want to partner with.

In the UK, FutureLearn (the MOOC venture led by Open University has recently appointed Simon Nelson as CEO. In this weeks Times Higher Education, it reports that:

Key to the success of the project is reputation, Nelson emphasises. Of Futurelearn’s 17 university partners, almost all are in the top 400 of theTimes Higher Education World University Rankings, while more than half are members of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. “We were inundated with requests to join,”

To select university partners, Nelson drew on “a range of league tables, in order to help us identify which were consistently ranked as the top institutions in the UK”.

However, he denies that this elitist focus will simply allow prestigious institutions to enhance their reputation and potentially threaten the existence of lesser-ranked universities.

The door to Futurelearn is not closed, Nelson insists, noting that more university partners will be announced in the near future.

So at the moment, the UK company does not look like possible partner – their website certainly makes it clear that they ae not looking for new educational providers.

What about the US companies? An article in Inside Higher Ed implies that Coursera and others are similarly elitist.

The contract that Coursera uses with its partners says that it :

commits the company to offer “only content provided by top-quality educational institutions.” To Coursera that means it will “provide only content provided by universities that are a member of the Association of American Universities” or universities outside of North America that are “generally regarded ‘top five’ universities within any country in any given year.”

EdX, the company set up by MIT:

“hosts classes only from 12 universities, including its two founders, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. But edX’s exclusivity was widely perceived, while Coursera’s preferences were less clear. Seven of edX’s nine North American universities are in the AAU.”

So this might be a problem – the companies currently leading the revolution in MOOCs are quite clearly supporting the more elite universities – and you can understand maybe why they do so, because of the perceived advantages of receiving some kind of education form a prestigious institution.

However, it means that the bulk of universities in the US, the UK and elsewhere are frozen out of the development. If they decide that delivering material through a MOOC is part of their well developed and understood business plan, they are going to have to urn elsewhere for the technical solution.






A little cartoon about MOOCs

I found this on Twitter- a great cartoon about MOOCs by David Kernohan, whose blog and twitter feed I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Morris Snooks- remind you of anyone? This, and other more sophisticated but no less profound writings, should be carefully considered in the decisions to jump onto the MOOC bandwagon.

Surviving Disruptive Technologies

As part of my hands on investigation of MOOCs, I’m due to start a new course on Surviving Disruptive Technologies. This one is provided by Hank Lucas of University of Maryland.

The first lecture is available on YouTube.

Hopefully what I might learn in this course, which is a more traditional MOOC than edcmooc, will provide some useful insight into the impact of MOOCs on higher education as a business, and how we at Staffordshire could deal with this new technology.

The survival model considers the dilemma for the  incumbent facing a disruptive change from an innovation:

  • Denial
  • History
  • Resistance to Change
  • MInd Set
  • Brand
  • Sunk Costs
  • Profitabilitgy
  • Lack of Imagination

(Interesting to reflect that my view of MOOCs might be classified under these headings.)

Based on this, the organisation has to choose how to survive:

  • Change business model to accommodate competition and new opportunities
  • Abandion existing buisines model and adopt a new one
  • Failure – merger, buyout, liquidate

As I go through the course, I’ll post my thoughts and experiences.


My Latest on MOOCs

I’ve recently had a few weeks away from the University, and decided to use part of that time constructively. SO despite my previous protestations and antipathy, I decided to enrol on a MOOC offered by Coursera. The course I took was run by University of Edinburgh, on E-Learning and Digital Cultures.

I may have got lucky here -the topic is one that both interested and challenged me, but it would appear that the pedagogy used was very different from many other online course. In general  the approach seems to be weekly video lectures, supported by online tests and readings with a discussion forum – ie still very instructor led. The edcmooc (as we came to all it) was much more learner centred.

An interesting blog on the pedagogy used, in comparison with most courses is here.

The 4 weeks were split into topics of Looking to the Past, Looking to the Future, Reasserting the human and Redefining the Human. In each week a number of YouTube or Vimeo clips were offered as a starting point, together with recommended core and advanced readings, and reading specific to technology in education  There was a huge amount of interaction between the really engaged students through the discussion forums, Twitter  Google hangouts and Facebook. Assessment was leaner generated within quite wide bounds and peer assessed.

So was it all good news………….er, no.

I still can’t see how MOOCs are able to provide the utopian solution proposed by some view points  in this particular course – I sill see the impact of a widening digital divide between the haves and have nots, and the danger that for all our liberal intentions of using MOOCs to provide accessible  information and education to everyone  what we might fail to do is provide the education support needed. To be successful in the course that I took, you need to be a reasonably switched on, committed and connected learner. The MOOC can provide free education for someone like me, but I still don’t yet see how it replaces on campus or other forms of study, especially for new HE learners who need support.


The Week University (As We Know It) Ended – or more on MOOCs

The Week University (As We Know It) Ended was published in the Huffington Post, and is one of the most florid tub-thumping articles for MOOCs I have yet read.

Don Tapscott, reporting from Davos, writes:

“At one session here at Davos, the presidents of Harvard, Stanford and MIT all readily acknowledged that the experiments in new models of online learning will soon radically disrupt higher learning.

One expert suggested many universities are facing the early days of bankruptcy. Another predicted there may only be 10 universities that survive this transition.”

Wow. Just 10 universities.

Mind you  in the same article he refers to Sebastian Thrun ” Google vice-president. He led the team that developed the Google self-driving cars that have circled the globe taking pictures of streetscapes for its Street View service.”.

Google has developed a self driving car. Fact. Google have produced streetscapes using Street View. fact. Google HAVE NOT used self driving cars to photograph streetscapes. This is poorly researched journalistic hyperbole.

Maybe the rest of his article should be treated with a suitably large pinch of salt.