Examining disruptive innovations in distance education

Hazel Church, Curriculum Manager within the Open Programme team, shares her reflections on the Research and Innovation in Distance Education Conference held in London on 13 March 2020.

On Friday 13 March, I attended the Research and Innovation in Distance Education (RIDE) 2020 Conference which took place at the Centre for Distance Education, University of London. The theme of the conference was ‘Examining disruptive innovations in distance education’ and the aim of the conference was to engage researchers and practitioners and to address current challenges and advances in distance education.

The conference took place just before the coronavirus lockdown when we were still at the contain phase of the crisis and before the real disruption to our lives started. Some of the keynote speakers were online as they were unwell. Those of us in the audience made sure we were sat socially distant from each other, although we were still able to chat and network.

I am the Curriculum Manager of two ‘Open Box’ modules. These are modules which have been specifically written to be included in the Open Qualifications at The Open University. The two Open Box modules are:

These modules offer students the chance to decide their own learning and to experience a range of subjects by enabling them to use free courses such as those in OpenLearn and together with YXM130 resources and assessment to gain 30 credits. Providing validation and accreditation for non-formal courses is one of the ways the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4, Quality Education could be met, so these are very important modules for the University. These modules are my own experience of disruptive innovation in distance education.

I am in the last year of my study of the OU MA Online Distance Education (MA ODE) and my interest in this conference started with a WhatsApp message in my MA ODE group chat. One of my fellow students mentioned that her university were hosting the RIDE2020 conference. Some other students were also able to attend, so it was great to meet up with students who I have studied online with over the past two years.

The conference consisted of keynote presentations and seminars. There was a focus on Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), Artificial Intelligence and Microcredentials; all potentially disruptive to distance education. I attended two great sessions, Virtual Augmented Reality as the future of Distance Education by Marco Gillies from Goldsmiths and Artificial Intelligence in Open Distance Education by Abiodun Musa Aibinu of the Federal University of Technology, Minna, Nigeria.

Image of conference presentation

I joined the audience of the keynote presentations by Alison Littlejohn, Neil Morris and Dil Sidhu. In the first keynote, Alison’s presentation focused on Learning in uncertain times: Supporting Student Agency, and on balancing disruption and improving the student experience. Neil Morris spoke about  Unbundling Higher Education and talked about the impact for learners and learning. Universities buy in services from commercial providers, and this could be a tension between commercial interests and the education provider.

Photo of conference presentation

As Open Box modules require students to study free courses provided by platforms such as Coursera, I was pleased to hear the keynote presentation by Dil Sidhu who is the Chief Content Officer at Coursera. Dil stressed that Coursera (which was established in 2012), is a technical platform and not a content creator, and works closely with universities who provide the content for their courses. Coursera is a ‘world where anyone, anywhere can transform their life through learning’.

Martin Weller (Chair of the Open Board of Studies at the OU) was the final keynote speaker. His presentation was, Openness as a model for cooperation, not disruption. He stressed that the language we use is important, and that using words likedisruption’ carry implicit values and many negative connotations for education. He stated we should be critical of its use in education and consider if other models and descriptions might be better. Instead we should look for theories or approaches that promote aspects and values we want to see in higher education, such as:

  • Cooperation
  • Focused on problems
  • Learner centric
  • Seeking to support educators
  • A better fit with education
  • Emphasise social justice

Image of a presenter in front of conference presentation

The final session of the day was with David Baume of the Centre of Distance Education, University of London, entitled Course design and pedagogy in distance learning, starting from what we know about learning? This was an excellent end to the day and David really got the delegates engaging with each other, We discussed different aspects of our own teaching, describing and working with our own ideas and what improvements could be made. Putting into practice that it is the work learners do that generate the learning! He made a point of finishing on time too.

It was a great day meeting academics who were interested in the pedagogy of the Open Box modules as well as meeting fellow MA ODE students. We all knew it would be the last chance to attend a face to face conference for some time…

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