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Recent blogs from IET staff

It’s about ownership, stupid

Professor Martin Weller's Blog - Thu, 23/04/2015 - 13:31

I went to an excellent presentation from Cable Green yesterday about the K12 OER Collaborative. The project is aiming to get states to some of the money they currently spend on buying text books from publishers to produce open ones. He highlighted very forcibly what a crappy deal we currently have in that books are often very old (because they can’t afford to update), children are not allowed to do anything useful like take notes in them (because they have to be passed on), and if you lose one, the parents have to pay to replace it (which results in some parents telling their kids not to bring the book home). And on top of this, it’s really expensive.

So what they did was for a fraction of the cost currently allocated to purchase books they put out a call for companies to create new ones, but crucially, these would be only licensed. This means that a) the digital copy is free, b) the state owns the rights so can update and adapt as they want and c) they can match specifically to common core. While the big publishers boycotted the call, many smaller ones responded, as did university departments. A million dollars (say) may not mean much to Pearson, but to a small company it’s a decent sum of money, even if there is no further revenue had then on sales.

The finances are truly staggering here, at the moment the state (he was talking about Washington state) can afford to update two books a year. When you consider the range of subjects and the age ranges, that means a lot of set books are out of date before it’s their turn to be updated. For the same money to update 2 books a year, using the open approach they could create open textbooks for ALL subjects. And these would of course, be usable across the whole of the US, not just in one state. And they would have money to pay people to regularly update the books. And they’d still have change left over.

When this is laid out you realise, that much like the academic publishing model, the current system was devised when ownership resided with the physical artefact. It now looks ludicrous. I do think we will look back in years to come and think “how did we let it go on for so long?”. I don’t know what the figures are for buying UK textbooks for schools, or how the process works, but the same approach would surely work here. In the US the figure is $8 billion nationwide, and the K12 OER project reckons it could do it all for around $300 million. Imagine what that extra money might be spent on in education.

It reinforced to me an obvious point, but one that bears repeating – ownership is key here. The real reason education boards spend millions of dollars in buying textbooks is not because the publishers have specialised technology or skills anymore. It is because they own the rights to the content. Once you break that link, then all sorts of possibilities open up.

Here is Cable’s slidedeck:

MOOCs as open driver

Professor Martin Weller's Blog - Wed, 22/04/2015 - 21:24

(I could pretend this image had some connection to the post, but it doesn’t really, it’s just a pic I took in Banff to make you jealous)

I’m at OEGlobal this week and attended a session from Athabasca University Library this morning. They were talking about how they have gathered together open access resources under the subjects for their uni, and also gathered in open resources from elsewhere. You can access this open access collection at their site. I think more libraries should do this, prioritising open resources so everyone can access them.

But what struck me in their presentation was that MOOCs were quite a significant driver in doing this. For many university libraries collecting open access resources doesn’t really matter as the fee paying students will have access to those resources anyway (if the library can afford to pay for them). And so there is no real driver for educators to focus on OA above other resources. But when people started creating MOOCs, this breaks down – your open learners won’t have that privileged library access, so any resources you use must be open.

This is similar to the manner in which social media drives open access also. What it highlights is that openness in any form begets openness. So while we may sometimes bemoan that MOOCs themselves are not really open (in the sense of openly licensed), they do form part of a larger system, which helps drive openness. I expect you’d all realised this long ago, hadn’t you?

e-Access'15 conference part 2

Dr Nick Freear's blog - Wed, 22/04/2015 - 15:53

Continued from the previous post…

In the second part of the plenary Kathleen Egan, Programmes Manager at Age UK London, presented the valuable work done by the charity on digital inclusion. She discussed a project to use teenagers as volunteer mentors, and referred to the Digital inclusion evidence review, 2013 (PDF).

The final session of the morning was by Paul Smyth, Head of IT Accessibility at Barclays Bank. Paul Smyth and his colleagues have acheived a high-level of buy-in and ownership of Web accessibility from the bank's senior management.


I was happy to have lunch with Roger Wilson-Hinds and Natasha Beauharnais. They are both involved with Georgie Phone, a suite of low-cost Android mobile phone apps for the vision-impaired. These look very promising – I must take a look. And, I think I've met Roger at previous events...

The afternoon started for me with setting up for the round-table discussion that I was chairing, title "OU Media Player: Mainstreaming video accessibility". My colleague, Peter Devine, put a lot of work into an A0 poster, that I hope the participants found useful.

I'm fairly used to giving presentations. However, this was my first time chairing a discussion, and I was feeling nervous. We had a good number of attendees for the discussion – between 9 and 11. People attended from a wide variety of organizations, including the RNIB, the University of Southampton, and the Worshipful Co of Information Technologists.

Here are some of the questions that were asked and discussed:

  • Did I have documentation on how to make a media player accessible? (Answer: not yet)
  • How had we made the player accessible? (Answer: heavily customized MediaElement.js + testing + iterate...)
  • What formats/ file types did the player support? (Answer: generally those formats supported natively by browsers - via HTML 5; and those supported by Flash. So: mp3 audio, mp4, m4v and FLV video)
  • Did it support, eg. YouTube/Vimeo? (Answer: the underlying MediaElement.js framework does support YouTube; OU Media Player doesn't yet – watch this space)
  • Was it going to be open sourced? (Answer: yes)
  • When? (Answer: at the time of the conference I couldn't say. Now I can say, within the next 6 months)
  • What about DRM? (Answer: not considered yet. )

What I learnt about chairing a panel:

  • Have ideas jotted down for things to discuss - if there is a lull in conversation (I found there was a lull, and I wasn't quite prepared for it)
  • Be prepared to drive or guide things;
  • Try to include everyone, not just the most vocal (not sure I managed that);
  • Find a way to take notes;
  • Do a "register" at the start, so that you have everyone's contact details (should be obvious);
  • Go round at the start asking people to introduce themselves, explain what they want from the discussion (I think I did this – not sure how well though);
  • Hand out "feedback questionnaires" (meant to print some, ran out of time);

Possibly useful links:

Thank you to all who attended the discussion. And, thank you to the event organisers, Dan Jellinek and his team.

Go West: #OER15 Calling!

Dr Beck Pitt's blog - Tue, 21/04/2015 - 18:47

Originally posted on :

Next week team OER Hub will be Westward bound as we head to Cardiff, Wales for OER15!

This year’s conference is focused on “Mainstreaming Open Education” and will be held at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama on Tuesday 14 and Wednesday 15 April. Keynotes include Cable Green, Sheila MacNeill, Josie Fraser and our very own Martin Weller.

With six conference tracks (including Impact Research, OEP and Policy and Open Education in Schools and Colleges) and no less than seven parallel sessions including workshops and panel presentations happening simultaneously there’s plenty to check out. Head on over to the conference schedule for an overview and the abstracts for talks.

We’re also excited to be participating in several sessions across the conference:

Tuesday 14 April 

  • Get a double dose of Hub goodness with Bea debuting the latest findings from our impact research PLUS Beck talking about whether openness…

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OER15 and the nature of change in higher ed

Professor Martin Weller's Blog - Sun, 19/04/2015 - 12:47

Last week was the OER15 conference here in Wales. I was the co-chair along with Haydn Blackey. While my view may be somewhat biased, I think it was a great success. We had great sessions, everything worked well, the venue was marvellous and the sun was out in Cardiff. If you haven’t been to the Uk OER conference before, I recommend getting along to Edinburgh next year for OER16. I was, as is so often the case, reminded very forcibly of how enthusiastic and engaging the open ed community are.

The theme of the conference was “Mainstreaming OER”. I suggested in the opening remarks, that it wasn’t the case that OER are already mainstream practice, but that they now stand on the cusp of it. After 13 years or so of development, a global community has been developed who are focused on OERs, open textbooks and open education in general. But the next stage is to move into the mainstream. There is almost nowhere else left to go now. That transition may not be successful, and it isn’t inevitable, but it is the next phase we need to attempt, in order to realise much of the ambition that underpinned the OER movement.

Often conference themes are rather vague, and don’t really bear any resemblance to the actual sessions. They’re rather like having a theory of parenting – you think it will go one way, and reality trundles along regardless of your interventions. But I feel that the theme of mainstreaming OER was really very relevant to the content of the conference. All of the keynotes explicitly addressed it, and in all the sessions I attended, participants made it a key thread in their work.

This caused me to muse somewhat on the nature of change (especially in higher education). I read Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction the other week, and she talks about the nature of extinction and its time frame. Darwin and others believed species go extinct very slowly (the winding down of a natural selection process). But of course, we discovered that sometimes extinctions happen quickly, caused by major events (the dinosaur slaying K-T event being the most famous). As Kolbert puts it, “conditions on earth change only very slowly, except when they don’t”. Or as paleontologist David Roup sums it up, evolution is “long periods of boredom interrupted occasionally by panic.”

Related to this, my colleague Simon Horrocks pointed me to the French historical tradition of la longue duree. This argues that we shouldn’t focus on the big events in human history, but rather on longer cycles. While we tend to talk of significant battles and revolutions, the ideas or regimes these have overthrown persist for much longer. This is in line with the theme of my book, that having had the initial victory, it is actually now that direction is determined.

Which brings me back to the theme of OER15. I think change in higher ed has some resemblance to the evolutionary pattern (although over much shorter timescales) – change happens very, very slowly, and then very, very quickly. At the same time there are also longer patterns of change beneath this. For example, one might argue that MOOC hysteria was an example of one of those moments of panic. But this occurs within longer cycles – for example, the trend towards openness might be one, but so are much more fundamental practices such as knowledge construction, autonomy, critical thought, etc. I would suggest that silicon valley and the media are almost exclusively focused on those moments of panic, but ignore the equally important longer processes. In terms of OER then, I would argue we need to embrace both – be prepared for the long haul, but ready to react when the rapid change comes.

Here is a nice playlist of all the keynotes from OER15, and also an overview video:

Finding the problems OER solves

Professor Martin Weller's Blog - Tue, 14/04/2015 - 07:26

At the Hewlett Grantees meeting in San Francisco, David Wiley made a very good argument that we need to focus on specific problems that OERs can address and solve those. I think this is part of the mainstreaming process – at the start of the movement there are grand claims and big visions. These are necessary to get it going, but over time and with further investment the focus becomes more practical. So, reducing the cost of textbooks for students in higher ed is one such specific problem. We can show how OERs (in the form of Open textbooks) can achieve this, we can implement an approach to solve it, and we can measure it.

We also discussed whether there are universal problems which OER can solve. David suggested that actually problems often look superficially similar, but there is such variety in context that they are actually very different problems. The situation in North America is different to that in Europe, and that in the UK is different to that in France, and that in K12 is different to higher ed, etc.

I would contend that there are some problems which, if not quite universal, are similar enough to be of interest to a wide range of people. If we take the original premise that we need to focus on specific problems, then the next stage is to find problems of sufficient interest. Here are some which our OER Research Hub findings point to, but these are just some suggestions, and will undoubtedly be influenced by my higher ed, northern hemisphere perspective, so I’d love to hear more:

  • Student retention – students in formal ed at all levels were often using OERs to support their learning. At the moment this is all behind closed doors as it were, but educators could make better use of promoting OERs to offer a broader range of material. Specific research could then identify whether such use does aid retention.
  • Student recruitment – higher education study is increasingly expensive in many countries, so the idea of trying it out for a year and then maybe switching to a different course is not really an option (as it was in my day). So if you want to help recruit students who are really interested in your subject, then giving them some good OERs is one way of them exploring whether they want to study with you. Again, there is longitudinal research here that could verify whether this has any impact.
  • Student costs – this could be in terms of open textbooks for formal learners, but also more broadly in terms of allowing access to educational content that would otherwise be unaffordable for informal learners. This research would focus on the impact of OERs for informal learners, or savings for formal learners.
  • Pedagogic variety -teachers, colleges, universities all struggle with the issue of appropriate staff development, updating the curriculum and incorporating technology. We found that use of OER by teachers led to a lot of reflection on their own practice, and caused them to incorporate a greater variety of content and approaches in their teaching. The impact of OERs on teaching practice is, I think, under reported and researched so one could imagine projects targeted specifically at encouraging this.

There are obviously more, but that wouldn’t be a bad set of problems to both solve and to investigate fully. But I definitely feel that these targeted benefits allied with appropriate research is what is required in OER now.

Design for Life

Will Woods's blog - Wed, 08/04/2015 - 09:39

I’ve finally worked some Manics lyrics into my blog post..

Why the title Design for Life? – Well there is a very good reason why I’ve not been blogging these past three months. I’m currently on secondment to the big production engine of the Open University (Learning and Teaching Solutions) and heading up the development of a new area there called TEL (Technology-Enhanced Learning). This new sub-unit is responsible for the aspects of Learning Design as we apply it within the Open University context, so we’re referring to this as “TEL Design”.

Learning Design in it’s purest form is technology and pedagogy neutral but within TEL design we are seeking to to use evidence based approaches to the production and presentation of modules so that they are designed appropriately considering learning outcomes (LOs), tuition/support approach, assessment and the overarching student experience. The OU has already being doing this for some time through the Learning Design team in IET who have been working with module teams on activity planning and module mapping processes to ensure that a sound pedagogic approach is being considered which is appropriate for the level of study and disciplinary context. This work however needs to be scaled up as we have perhaps in the order of 100-150 modules being refreshed every year from a provision of around 600 modules which form the OU curriculum. I’m therefore simplifying what is a very complex activity, working with module teams to turn these sound pedagogic approaches into practical module/course designs suitable for each disciplinary context which form part of a coherent student journey and consider appropriate use of technologies.

So tackling each area of my role:

Evidence-based Practice

Within TEL we have a group of around 20 very seasoned practitioners in module production or aspects of teaching, either within or outside the OU. This group have excellent experience in what works, is appropriate for design of online learning activity and which enhances the student experience. i.e. lots of empirical knowledge.

(a) We are building a library of examples of best practice

(b) We are establishing, through a survey, the evidence bases that are currently being used within the OU to establish what is “best practice”. (we have huge amounts of of evidence to draw upon – see our Learning Analytic colleagues such as Doug Clow for details of that work!).

(c) We are considering where evidence is needed and of what type. For example in some cases a “deep dive” approach may be more suitable. We are working with colleagues in IET on projects exploring analytics and evidence to support decision making for both improving design during production and also for in presentation adaption and improvement.

(d) We are also considering how much to rely on phronesis or discretionary practitioner judgement. There is a lot of interesting literature in this area, I particularly enjoyed the McNamara Fallacy and the problem with Numbers in Education article by Carl Hendrick on the dangers of using data for decision making on very complex models.

Scholarship, Development and Training

I’ve been working on a development plan for “TEL Design” practitioners. I’ve been co-ordinating work on this, looking at job descriptions both internally and externally and mapping the skills and competencies into a framework which also matches to the UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning (UKPSF) from the Higher Education Academy. During March 2015 I released a questionnaire to TEL staff to ask then to rate themselves against areas of this framework. We are currently creating plans to meet these needs which will be through:

(a) Identifying the most urgently needed skills and competencies required by the majority of people and consequently running workshops and training sessions to up-skill our staff, for example Grainne Conole ran a workshop in March for us on “Strategies for designing and evaluating effective learning activities”.

(b) Exploring what specific skills and competencies are required by individuals and creating personal development plans (PDPs) to meet those needs

(c) Using practice-based approaches to improve competency, for example mentoring and encouraging staff to engage in HEA fellowship programme through the OU OpenPAD scheme as a method to encourage reflection and improve practice.

(d) Developing a scholarly culture within the unit, this includes encouraging TEL staff to be involved in publishing and attending events relevant to their practice and to recognize and reward achievement in areas of specialism and knowledge within the TEL group.

Strategy and Culture

This is by far the biggest challenge as we are having to carve out a shape for the design process within the OU’s current production methodology and management processes.

The good news is that we are doing this at a time when the curriculum systems are being refreshed, when the OU curriculum itself is being refreshed through a curriculum: fit for the future programme and the Learning and Teaching Vision and Plan 2025 provides us with imperative to establish the evidence based design approach within production and presentation. I’m also located within a unit which is currently going through a re-focus process so the design processes can be considered within an overhaul of the whole production life-cycle processes to make them more efficient and effective. In order to make this stick we need a cultural change and that’s perhaps my biggest challenge. OU module production has become very risk averse and procedural and the people are necessarily used to that safety blanket of knowing what’s coming up six months before they need to start work, things need to change here and the ability to be agile and adaptive is increasingly important.

We are doing this successfully in MOOC design where the timescales are shorter and the methods used are bespoke and usually outside of regular process, the challenge now is to make that the norm rather than the exception.

I don’t have all the answers here but I have a number of ideas which I’m currently exploring.  I’m also looking, with my colleagues in TEL and LD, at the activity structure for the TEL Design workshops and I’m considering a model which I want to share for discussion. More on that in my next blog post.


Download figures from Research Gate

I don’t engage very heavily with either Research Gate or with for several reasons

(1) Time is limited, and there are only so many networks I can engage with

(2) All my work is available via my institutional repository (ORO) or via this blog

(3) Neither Research Gare nor seems to be particularly open about its business model. How are they making money out of my time and my resources?

I thought for a while that ResearchGate might be making money via targeted job ads, but they’re currently suggesting I might be interested in the post of associate dean for veterinary research at Ross University, Saint Kitts and Neots. As my only qualifications for that job are that I once had a pet cat and I like visiting tropical beaches, I don’t think their targeting algorithms are very sophisticated.

Despite my overall lack of engagement, both sites now know a fair amount about me and my work, and my co-authors often upload papers. This means I sometimes get email updates on my downloads. This week, apparently, my work was downloaded 101 times, with 72 people downloading a technical report on social learning analytics and 16 downloading an editorial that came out this week. I even get a national breakdown of downloads (see pic). In addition to those shown, my work was accessed from Taiwan (3), Italy (3), Canada (2), Finland (2), South Korea (2), New Zealand (2), Indonesia (1), Romania (1) and Ecuador (1). That’s 20 countries this week.

Meanwhile, back at the institutional repository, my work has been downloaded over 1000 times this month. I’m not sure what to make of this. If these figures are typical (I’ve no idea if they’re high or low), then there is an enormous amount of scholars out there who are doing an enormous amount of reading. And it also looks as if the digital divide is growing – I see no African countries at all on that download list, and this reflects my experience at conferences.

The Ivory Tower & the wrong focus

Professor Martin Weller's Blog - Fri, 27/03/2015 - 14:29

I am at the Hewlett Grantees meeting in Sausalito this week, and last night they showed the film The Ivory Tower, in order to provoke discussion around what relevance OER had to the issues raised in the film. I’d seen it before, on a plane, and it had vaguely irritated me, but it was interesting to see it again last night, when it really irritated me.

I think a documentary film about how we fund higher education is an interesting thing to do, but this one jumps around all over the place. It suggests that the fault of high education costs lies with the university. It is not a film about how society funds higher education. For instance it only looks at the US. If you were interested in the topic of higher ed funding you would look at other countries with different models. As I’ve said before, if you make higher education a market, you shouldn’t then criticise universities for behaving in a perfectly logical way to succeed in that market. The film makes a big play on universities having climbing walls and fancy buildings, but if these attract students and money in a competitive market, then that they are inevitable. It doesn’t take the next step and make the discussion about funding in general, but rather says we should look at what universities are doing and whether education is now a good investment.

It also offers some of the alternatives that were popular a few years back, including UnCollege and, of course, MOOCs. The whole MOOC section just seems deeply embarrassing now. There is a definite ‘these will sweep away unis’ feeling, and they give the pre-pivot Thrun full rein. No-one making a documentary in 2015 would present MOOCs in such a light (which is not to fall into Good vs Evil Unicorn territory, not to say you couldn’t have an interesting doc about them). And this I think is the problem – for OERs they need to avoid getting caught up in any of the rhetoric that will date quickly. Instead, as David Wiley likes to propose, focus on particular problems and solve those. OERs don’t need to mean the end of university, but they might help with the high cost of textbooks. OERs don’t need to create an UnCollege program, but they can help students pick the right course by studying before they choose, and then help them complete by supplementing study when they’re in university. And so on. These benefits aren’t as glamorous and may not get you a documentary made, but they are actually useful.

Where do you go for community?

Professor Martin Weller's Blog - Fri, 20/03/2015 - 14:31

(It is a little known fact that every time a pub closes, an angel dies)

I use the site Blipfoto to do the photo a day thing. I’m not that active over there, but it is one of those sites that some people really, really, love. It has developed a strong community over the years, but this week it was announced it was going into liquidation. It may not be lost, as a buy-out may be on the cards, but it’s a reminder of the fragility of these things. It doesn’t bother me too much, I started a WordPress blog to do the same, and I’m in the lucky position of having my main network elsewhere. But for many users, Blipfoto is the place they go to connect with people.

Of course, the obvious solution is to own everything yourself and self-host. But there are two issues with this – if you want to connect around a particular interest you need to go where others with that interest are located. You can build up a network through self hosted blogs, as many of us have done, but a specific site is an easier thing to manage, and also allows for more serendipity I think. I have seen photos from people who work on North Sea oil rigs, people doing relief work in Mongolia, others who have the same dog as me, as well as connecting with the people I know through other means. Those other connections don’t always happen through your self hosted sites. The second reason is that while I might just about manage to host my own WP site, it’s really into something a lot of people will do. The ease of use and simple purpose of such sites is their attraction.

Ultimately I think it’s just one of those things. Online services have no more right to permanence than physical ones. We have complex, emotional attachments to buildings because of the social function they perform. Think of the impact the closing of the village pub has on that community. Why did we imagine online spaces would be any easier? Enjoy it while you can, make sure you have a backup and remember nothing lasts forever – that’s about the sum of it.

Good vs Evil Unicorns

Professor Martin Weller's Blog - Mon, 16/03/2015 - 13:46

I’ve done variations on my Battle for Open talk 3 times this week, and one slide I’ve used is to talk about the way false dichotomies are created. I characterised it as you are forced to be a good or evil unicorn (these are actually a thing, but a not real thing). This is often the result of excessive hype and over-reaching on the part of educational technology. The silicon valley/technology utopia narrative has a lot to do with this – in order to get attention for you start-up it is better to give a story that it is revolutionary, rather than a bit useful. The media plays an important role too as it prefers these ‘next big thing’ stories. And when they don’t realise this potential (which is usually a good thing as their utopia is quite often a dystopia for others), people get disaffected.
If you work in ed tech you’ve seen enough of these to become completely jaded and cynical, and there is some fun to be had in puncturing the puffed up nonsense of the latest education disruption. But we should also be careful not to just reject all technologies simply because they come wrapped in nonsense media. And this is what happens, we find ourselves forced into diametrically opposed camps because that is what the narrative demands of us – there are no neutral unicorns.
And while it is boring, and can be dismissed as sitting on the fence, the truth almost always lies in the middle. MOOCs are not going to destroy higher education as we know it, nor are they irrelevant. They’ll turn out to be useful for some purposes.
Here are the types of conflict we often see set up in this good vs evil unicorn world:

  • MOOCs as saviours – MOOCs as irrelevant
  • All online learning – all face to face
  • Learning analytics means no more pesky humans – Learning analytics as dehumanised teaching
  • Technology as solution for everything – Technology offers no help

And so on. I’ve felt myself being forced into these extremes at times. It’s easier in a way, you don’t have to think anymore – your reaction for any new development is pretty much defined for you. It may also be profitable – if a newspaper, TV or radio show want an interview, they want the people at the extremes, not the nuanced view in the middle.
But ultimately it’s not helpful, and simply just wrong. If you find yourself being pushed into an extreme view, ask yourself if you’re a good or bad unicorn. The answer is, neither.


Good to see on Twitter for International Women’s Day.

2015 so far… January and February review

Dr Beck Pitt's blog - Thu, 05/03/2015 - 16:32

Originally posted on :

Project Update

It may seem a little quiet here at the Hub of late but rest assured we’re hard at work behind the scenes! Since the new year we’ve been particularly focused on writing up our research for journal publication.  Simultaneously, the team is also involved in a number of other OER projects. Rob is working with HBZ on the OER World Map project; which is currently focused on building the technical architecture. Beck and Bea are developing the research strand of the Opening Educational Practices in Scotland (OEPS) project and Bea is also collaborating with the ExplOERer Project to design of an open course to train teachers in OER reuse. The course will be available on the Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU) platform early next year.

Open Education Week 2015 (9-13 March 2015) 

There’s not long to go now until this year’s Open Education Week!

As you might be aware…

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e-Access'15 conference

Dr Nick Freear's blog - Tue, 03/03/2015 - 16:08

First, a mention for #AXSchat – an online conversation that happens each Tuesday 20-21:00 UTC/GMT on Twitter – on all things accessibility and inclusion-related in business on the web and beyond. Run by @neilmilliken and @akwyz.


On the 24 February, I attended the e-Access'15 conference chaired by the excellent Dan Jellinek of Headstar and Nigel Lewis of AbilityNet. This is the ninth year that the conference on digital accessibility has been successfully run. As in previous years it was a one-day conference in central London.

To start us off, Amar Latif gave a great speech about his life as a documentary maker, actor and entrepreneur. He talked about his three Is - independence, inspiration & innovation. And, he discussed his work on the 2005 documentary, Beyond Boundaries, founding the international travel agency for blind and sighted travellers – Traveleyes, and his personal experience of sight loss.

Kevin Carey's talk on "The future of accessibility policy", read by Nigel Lewis in his absence, was as you'd expect, thought provoking and challenging. I'm still digesting it now… He provocatively argued that accessibility evangelism, advocacy, and software development over the past two decades had largely failed. He called for a complete re-think of our approach. His proposal centred around analytics,"task completion rates" and peer-normative comparisons.

Kevin's speech took me back to learning ergonomics (in the context of Applied Gerontology) back at Uni.. A simple ergonomics/ anthrometry example - as a 1.9m (6 foot 3 inches) person, with around a 34 inch inside leg, when I get on a bus or into an economy airline seat, I know I'll be cramped. This is because the space is designed to suit the vast majority of the population, for example the "95 percentile" (or 93, 94, 96... percentile) who fall below me in a standard distribution of heights or thigh-bone length measurements. This approach lets designers, and their clients, know who they will design for, and who will be discomfited or excluded (or endangered) by a design. It is an optimization technique that appears to date back to the ancient Greeks, predates anti-discrimination legislation, and when used appropriately is borne of good design, good business and pragmatism. That is, if they built buses and planes to sit tall people in comfort, then more people would stand in the rush-hour, and fewer of us could afford to fly.

Kevin's suggestions may indeed be the way to go, as long as we can collect sufficient data to help drive decisions. It may hang on people's willingness to self-declare their disabilities in online tools and services.

(To be continued…)

Raspberry Pi #PiBirthday party at Cambridge Computer Labs

I booked a place at this event the moment tickets became available on EventBrite. The are now so popular they sell out really fast. Workshops had only 20 places, and booking opened at 7:30pm on the Thursday. Needless to say, I forgot and all workshop tickets got sold out immediately. I was therefore delighted when @recantha (aka Mike Horne, organiser) emailed to say a few tickets had become available. I emailed right back pleading for one on the GPS Tape Measure workshop and got one.

The big day arrived. Arriving not long after 10, I was surprised and delighted to get given a lovely RPI 2 case as I went in. Thanks to @jarjargeek for this tweeted photo. I was too excited to get to the keynote talk and just popped the case in my pocket.

I had to scoot off to get to the GPS workshop in time. It was billed as “An exciting workshop for anyone who has done a little Python programming on their Pi and now wants to take it further.” and it truly was great fun.

After a brief introduction to GPS, we typed in a small program that queried a GPS/GLONASS receiver (a powerful one suitable for cars) that was attached to a Pi to get location information. Having entered and checked the code, we dashed outside to see if it worked. However depite having a ‘fix’ my distance display did not increase as I walked. Back to the workshop to double-check the code.

Such a minor typo! I had used a lowercase letter instead of a capital to refer to a variable with the result that a new variable was created. The increasing distance went into the real variable, while the new variable (still at zero) was displayed on the little LED display. Once sorted, back outside to test it and yippee, it worked.

Just had time to listen to another inspirational talk by David Whale on running STEM clubs, not just high level suggestions but practical tips on making sure you have all your equipment ready and ways to ensure that you don’t spend all your time putting things together and taking them apart.

After this, it was about lunchtime. So after a brief stop at the cafe and its welcome pannini and coffee, it was of to explore the stands and stalls.

So many interesting projects. So much to buy. Needless to say, I had to purchase a RPi II to go in my nifty new case. All the white bits of the case clip on in order to protect the Pi, and off again to allow you to connect things. Really practical

Quite an expensive but really interesting day. Below are a few of the pictures from the day. I loved things like the RPi used to drive a game of space invadors running on a console made out of an old arcade machine. It had been left in the damp so all the insides were rusted to pieces, but the buttons still worked so playing the game had a real feel of the old-style machines, with the little Pi inside controlling it all.

Laura’s wooden artificial intelligence (yes another RPi) was good fun. You put an object on the stand and then spoke to it using the wooden keyboard. She had put all the code she had written in a paper book – a lovely juxtapositioning of old and new, traditional materials and computer technology. Very effective.

And then there was the very loud chair that would read what you had written using sliders that you inserted into lines to make a kind of slate. 3D printers making amazing puzzles, and as I walked around I got the ‘mark of the #PiBirthday’ on my hand and a raffle ticket. I need to check today to see if I won anything  More RPis perhaps?

So much, the time went all too quickly and we left the venue to those who had bought tickets to the Pi birthday party.


At home, I have dedicated my entire desk to the Raspberry Pi. That way I won’t have to put it away or worry about leaving cables trailing across the living room floor. My infrared camera project beckons. With the RPi II running 6 times faster (and yes, that is obvious from first boot up) the possibilities are increasing.

The hidden tech shift in higher ed

Professor Martin Weller's Blog - Thu, 26/02/2015 - 12:53

It is quite common to hear statements along the lines of “education hasn’t changed in 100 years”. This is particularly true from education start-up companies, who are attempting to create a demand for their product by illustrating how much change is required in the sector. At a conference I attended once a speaker invited the audience to think about what they were doing now and what they were doing 10 years ago and how it hadn’t changed, and everyone agreed. But I think these statements miss a lot of the change that has taken place.

If you were to come to a university campus, superficially it looks as though things are pretty unchanged. The sports centre is better, the bar is less of a dive and the restaurant serves better food, but there are still lectures, laboratories and students sitting around on the grass. But these mask a real technological and demographic change that has taken place over the past 20 years.

Firstly, the concept of the traditional student – someone who leaves home at 18 and studies full time at a university – is no longer dominant. Many students are living at home (and will still have the same groups of friends), studying part-time, studying at a distance or are in the ‘mature’ group, ie over the age of 22.

Secondly, the role of technology has become much more central. Imagine turning off learning and teaching systems at a university (we’ll ignore admin systems for now). Many universities would simply be unable to function. Students submit assignments, access teaching material, use digital library resources, use software for research, engage in group work and socialize via these systems. While I have many reservations about the way the VLE path has panned out, this technology is central in just about all universities. Even relatively uninteresting (from a pedagogic perspective) technologies such as lecture capture can have a profound impact for many students.

Comparison with the music industry is also a trope you will hear fairly often. The MOOCs were the MP3 of higher education Shirky warned us. In fact, if you take the view above, then higher education, far from being a sector that is still waiting for the internet to happen to it, is a good example of how to incorporate new technology while still retaining its core functions.

Which is not to say it’s all okay. I think a real problem for higher ed is the legacy of the physical environment for example. We do lectures because we have lecture theatres. More significantly we can’t conceive of doing anything else because the lecture theatres says “do lectures”. It would be very difficult, for instance, to implement a flipped approach in many university courses because the face to face space is built for lecturing and not doing the other things you might want to utilize that time for. Shirley Alexander is a good example of someone who is rethinking that university space, but it doesn’t come cheap. Similarly, if you’re being generous, maybe it took this long for the VLE to be accepted, but more innovative use of online tools should now be more commonplace.

There is much more that is fun, innovative and challenging that can be done, and we should push hard on this, but at the same time I would challenge anyone who claims glibly that higher education hasn’t changed. They simply haven’t looked properly.

Learning analytics: overcoming the barriers to large-scale adoption

I’m pleased that our paperLearning Analytics in Context: Overcoming the Barriers to Large-Scale Adoption has just been published by the Journal of Learning Analytics.

The paper begins by looking at why introducing learning analytics within an institution often proves to be difficult. It goes on to set out a framework that offers a step-by-step approach to the introduction of learning analytics, and shows how this can work in practice by focusing on developments in two very different institutions: a distance university in the UK and a university of technology in Australia.

The paper’s authors bring together a wealth of experience that is grounded in strategy, research and practice. Co-authors with a strategic perspective are Belinda Tynan, pro vice chancellor at the UK’s Open University who is leading on the development and roll-out of a programme of learning analytics across the institution, and Shirley Alexander, the deputy vice chancellor taking the lead on developing University of Technology Sydney as a data-intensive university. Leah Macfadyen from the University of British Columbia and Shane Dawson from the University of South Australia bring a research perspective that draws on an intensive study of the roll-out of analytics at an institutional scale, while Doug Clow from The Open University draws on his practitioner experience as a data wrangler, as well as his research experience in this area.


A core goal for most learning analytic projects is to move from small-scale research towards broader institutional implementation, but this introduces a new set of challenges because institutions are stable systems, resistant to change. To avoid failure and maximize success, implementation of learning analytics at scale requires explicit and careful consideration of the entire TEL technology complex: the different groups of people involved, the educational beliefs and practices of those groups, the technologies they use and the specific environments within which they operate. It is crucial to provide not only the analytics and their associated tools, but also to begin with a clear strategic vision, to critically assess institutional culture, to identify potential barriers to adoption, to develop approaches to overcome these and to put in place appropriate forms of support, training and community building. In this paper, we provide tools and case studies that will support educational institutions in deploying learning analytics at scale with the goal of achieving specified learning and teaching objectives. The ROMA Framework offers a step-by-step approach to the institutional implementation of learning analytics and this approach is grounded by case studies of practice from the UK and Australia.

Disabled students in Japanese Higher Education – a time for change

Martyn Cooper's blog - Tue, 24/02/2015 - 09:47

The Open University of Japan (OUJ) hosts an annual international symposium on matters relating to higher education.  This year the theme was supporting disabled students in this context and in particular the role of ICT here.  [See:] This is timely because the Japanese Act on the Elimination of Disability Discrimination was enacted in 2013. From 2016, this means public universities are legally obliged to provide reasonable accommodation to students with disabilities, while private universities are expected to make diligent efforts to provide this for them.  The Japanese’s own perception is that they are about 30 years behind the USA and UK in this regard.  The symposium consisted of a presentation from the host organisation and four invited speakers, two from the USA, a Japanese leader in the field and myself from the UK.  Each presented on key themes from which the delegates from across the Japanese higher education sector could reflect and draw from in their own context.  Disabled students are currently very under-represented in Japanese higher education; in fact the Open University in the UK alone has more disabled students studying with it than across the whole of the higher education across Japan.

This blog posts discusses some of the lessons I learnt from this my first visit to Japan and impressions I gained.  It is the beginning of an exciting period in Japan that should see an increase in the representation of disabled people in the university student body and significant enhancements in the provision of appropriate support for them.

The numbers game

Takeo Kondo, of the University of Tokyo, gave some detail of the current situation in Japanese higher education and compared it with the USA and the UK.

The official 2014 published statistics showed Students with Disabilities (SWDs) in Japanese Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) numbered 13,449 out of 3,213,518 (0.42% out of all students including undergraduate and graduate students). [JASSO, 2014]

This was compared with  U.S figures for undergraduates in 2009 of  10.8% (19,155,000 out of 2,076,000) [US GAO, 2009];

and the UK figures  of SWDs among the 740,000 first year students enrolled in higher education in 2012 as 73,000 (9.8%). [HESA, 2014]

At the Open University in the UK  in 2013/14 there were over 18,000 undergraduate students declaring a disability: more than 14% of all OU undergraduates. [Internal Data]

The symposium chair, Prof. Hirose, stated that in 2013, there were 90,154 students studying with the Open University in Japan, of whom 698 had declared a disability (0.77%):

  • Visual impairment: 168 students
  • Hearing impairment: 32 students
  • Physically handicapped & sickly individuals (sic): 331 students
  • Others: 167 students

There needs to be some care when comparing such statistics as different classifications of disability may have been used. Further, all these figures are based on self-declaration of disability.  There may be cultural reasons why less disabled students declare their disability at Japanese universities and certainly, with much more limited support currently available for them, there is less incentive for them to do so.  Why declare a disability if it makes no difference to the university’s provision of support?

However, even given these caveats it is clear that SWDs are significantly underrepresented in Japanese higher education compared with the USA and the UK, maybe by a factor of 20.   Takeo Kondo’s presentation went on to give data on the changes of the Japanese data over time and a breakdown of the representation of different disability types.

Reflections on discussions

There was a formal discussion panel at the end of the symposium which addressed selected questions that had been submitted in writing during the day.  The fact that far more questions were submitted than could be addressed in the time was indicative of the delegates concern for the topic.  The speakers had spent 3 hours the previous day having a tour of the Open University of Japan and in less structure discussion with about 10 of their staff.  This section summarises and comments on key themes that arose in both these contexts.

Both from the organisers of the symposium and the delegates it was obvious there was a high degree of anticipatory anxiety about what the change in law means they need to do and whether they have the means to do it.  This could be compared to a commonly expressed anxiety in UK HEIs when the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was extended to include education with the coming into effect of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA) in 2001.  As well as anxiety about what needs to be done and how to do it there is also an anxiety about how this will be funded.

It was noted that the pedagogic models of the Open University in Japan and the Open University in the UK were very different.  The former is much more of a transmission of expertise style.  There is little discussion between students and lecturers and they do not deploy tutors.  This has significant implications for how support is best offered to disabled students.  At the OU in the UK if a student with disabilities encounters particular problems it is likely to be their tutor that first aware of this.

The difference in disabled student numbers between Japan and the UK or USA is very marked.  More research would be needed to fully understand this.  Certainly the historical lack of provision of support is a factor.  However other factors may be more significant.  One area here is the impact of the Japanese school system.  From the brief discussions had this appears very proscriptive both in terms of curriculum and style of teaching.  There is a strong emphasis on tradition skills such as well-formed hand writing of Japanese characters.  It appears that if for any reason a school pupil does not fit into this well, which might be because of a disability, they are likely to fall behind educationally and not develop aspirations to go onto higher education.

Concluding Comments

The law is seen very much as a driver for change.  This may well be the case and it was a factor in the enhancement of provision for disabled students in the UK following SENDA in 2001.  However law alone will not affect a substantive change.   Meeting the agenda of widening participation of higher education to be more inclusive of disabled people will have to become part of the value system of Japanese HEIs.  It is going to require a commitment beyond meeting of the letter of the law.  It will need institutional change not just the setting up of specialist support units.  The Japanese perceive themselves to be 30 years behind the USA and UK.  However, it need not take them 30 years to catch-up if there is the political will to affect change throughout the educational system.  I mean to maintain a watching brief on this transition and hopefully undertake some detailed research on it with Japanese colleagues.


HESA, 2014 – Higher Education Statistics Agency (2014) Statistical First Release 197: 2012/13 first year students by Disability.

JASSO, 2014 – Japan Student Services Organization (2014) Fact finding survey on supporting higher educational opportunities for students with disabilities (in Japanese)

US GAO, 2009 – U.S. Government Accountability Office (2009) HIGHER EDUCATION AND DISABILITY  Education Needs a Coordinated Approach to Improve Its Assistance to Schools in Supporting Students



iSpot February 2015

Dr Nick Freear's blog - Mon, 23/02/2015 - 15:30

Greetings iSpotters! (This is a similar post on our team blog.)

I'm happy to say that this morning we made a number of significant bug fixes live on the iSpot web site.

Here's a roundup of what's changed...

First up, we've added a "Please wait" spinner to the add/ edit observation wizard. This disables buttons on the form while slow operations like uploading photos occur. We hope this will reduce or eliminate the incidence of duplicate observations. This is a situation where we're eliminating a probable cause of the bug (duplicate observations), which may reveal further causes. In which case it will require further fixes. Time will tell.

(Embedded image courtesy of Chester Zoo)

Bear in mind that slowness in the add observation wizard can be caused by slow networks and low bandwidth. Something that is outside our control.

We've tested the spinner across a range of devices. In the Chrome browser on iOS (iPads, iPhones), the spinner will not appear, but the text "Please wait" will. A known issue. All other device/ browser combinations appear to work as expected.

Next, we fixed the peculiar "1970" date that was appearing if the first photograph used in the add observation wizard contained no EXIF data. (For those of you who are interested, you can read why the erroneous date was the 1st January 1970...)

There was another date-related bug, namely dates "disappearing" when you went back to edit an observation or project. This was a puzzler, however in the end the fix involved updating the third-party date module that iSpot employs. Job done!

Some strange text was appearing at the bottom of the add interaction wizard - on the location step. This turned out to be "debug" text (stuff added by developers to help them solve a problem). It took a little while to find where the text was being introduced. A fairly straightforward fix once we'd found the cause.

Hopefully, all this will help us make the most of Richard Greenwood's work on the add-observation wizard.

We updated the Twitter link in the page footer, to use @iSpotnature.

Finally, we've removed extraneous and commented-out HTML markup from Richard Lovelock's excellent Bootstrap-based theme. This shaves some kilobytes off each page request, and should provide a small performance boost, particularly on slow connections.

So, what do we have to look forward to?

Our performance guru, Greg, is still ironing out issues with the planned upgrade of the iSpot database to MySQL 5.7. This will provide us with a significant feature called "row-level locking" (in place of current table-level locks), which will significantly reduce a bottle-neck and improve performance. Our challenge is to maintain the geo-spatial database capabilities that iSpot requires, while making the most of feature improvements.

We've worked out the cause of the "missing" location title auto-complete options for our southern African cousins. The problem stems from significant differences between the global and ZA iSpot sites. There are data and even tables that aren't present in the legacy ZA site, because it only contained one community and species dictionary. We think we'll need significant down-time to fix this issue (a number of hours), so we're discussing how best to tackle this while minimizing disruption.

That's all for now. I hope that these fixes help you enjoy iSpot and reduce the frustrations.

Thank you for your patience. And for your enthusiasm - it's what makes the iSpot community tick!



(The iSpot team)

(This is a similar post on our team blog.)

Catch Up on Our Conference Sessions!

Dr Beck Pitt's blog - Mon, 23/02/2015 - 07:56

Originally posted on UK Sartre Society :

Didn’t manage to make it to last year’s conference? Enjoy a particular session but wish you could hear it again? Never fear, you can now revisit our 2013 and 2014 conference with today’s release of eight recordings!

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