FutureLearn – UK HE Collaborating to Compete

futurelearnSo after asking the question a few months ago about whether UK universities were missing a trick with MOOCs it looks like the answer is no.  It’s clear that whilst Edinburgh has joined Coursera other UK universities have been working together following up on the recommendation from the HEFCE Online Learning Task Force report and are collaborating to compete and seizing the opportunity of online learning for UK higher education with the launch of FUTURELEARN.

One of the task Force’s recommendations was for investment to be made to facilitate the development and building of consortia to achieve scale and brand in online learning

Quality online learning is not a cheap option. Through collaboration, institutions can achieve significant economies of scale and more rapid development and adoption of technologies, for example in the development of learning resources or in sharing the risk of developing new forms of provision. This approach enables institutions and organisations (that are perhaps already collaborating in other areas) to exploit their joint brands and extend them into new markets, offering innovative, quality provision. Collaboration should embrace and harness the strengths of diverse institutions and organisations, across public-private and sector divides.

FutureLearn, headed up by the OU and with other UK university partners looks to me like one response to this recommendation.  Tony Hirst and Doug Clouw have already blogged about FurtureLearn and  I fully agree with Doug about FutureLearn being worth a try.  I was quite excited when I read the piece on Friday morning in TechCrunch and I look forward to seeing how FutureLearn develops.

Isn’t it time that Higher Education went agile?

Andrea Provaglio: Beyond Agile @ WebExpo by evalottchen, on Flickr

A few weeks ago I read a piece on Inside Higher Ed titled Blackboard’s Challenge.  It talked about the change in ownership of Blackboard and the challenges faced moving forward and it included this statement:

A healthy Blackboard is important to our higher ed community because the presence of Blackboard drives competition and innovation in the LMS market, and because many schools will continue to be Blackboard clients in the foreseeable future.

Is that right? Is a healthy Blackboard important to the higher education community? As this piece by TechCrunch highlights, Blackboard is not exactly universally liked as a company or as a VLE/LMS and this comment may chime with many:

Personally, I’ve never met someone who gushed about the Blackboard user experience, which was handicapped by feature creep, while, over the course of your four years at college, the speed, agility and core user experience stayed the same.

This poor user experience and sense of loathing isn’t something that’s exclusive to Blackboard, others have similar critical views about Moodle and Desire to Learn.  It’s also not a view that’s limited to VLEs, you can hear similar frustrations about administration and other IT systems in higher education.  It’s the same in the NHS, there are complaints about systems that are slow and clunky and the NHS ePortfolio also comes in for lots of stick.  Where is the evidence that these commerical and institutional systems drive innovation in the way that users want to see innovation?

Using technology is pretty much a condition of work and education these days and for many it’s a headache, when it should be the opposite.  Universities spend large amounts of money licensing proprietary systems to support student management and learning.  These systems are adopted to support efficiency and avoid duplication of effort, yet many systems don’t speak to each other, so there is still duplication and departments still rely on endless spreadsheets and Access databases to manage their own unique requirements.  Systems that get procured are generally ‘market leaders’ but being a market leader doesn’t necessarily mean being the best.  Every institution has its own quirks and using off the shelf solutions don’t always make for a good fit.  Further investment is often needed to support customisation or the development of building blocks that help provide useful bits of functionality.  In the case of VLEs it can sometimes feel like you’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, particularly for courses like medicine that don’t fit the typical modular degree programme.  Then we have the issues of usability.  Some of these systems are bewildering, there’s no evidence of user experience or interaction design or the realities of day to day workflows being taken into account in their development.  There are browser issues and not much evidence of responsive design to support use on different devices.  It’s little wonder that staff and students aren’t just bringing their own devices to work but also using open technologies to support them in their work and studies.

So is a healthy Blackboard important to Higher Education?  I don’t think so.

With technology changing so rapidly isn’t it more important that HE begins to change its culture around technology and becomes less reliant on commerical technology solutions?  Is it time for HE to start adopting a much more agile approach to its use of technology and a culture of involving end users as it develops and implements IT solutions that are truly transformative?

The Agile approach to IT development has been adopted by the Cabinet Office as it has revamped GOV.UK, the gateway to government information and services. They’ve opted for agile, chosing to use open technologies and inhouse development teams that engage with real users. The UK Government’s digital strategy is detailed on their Cabinet Office website.  It’s worth having a read of. There’s a bit from Appendix 3, which outlines the proposed digital by default (transactional) service standard that states:


Redesigned transactional services will be:

  • simple and intuitive enough for users to succeed first time, unaided
  • designed for inclusion, so all who could use it do use it
  • make use of common design and user experience tools, so once people have done something once, they will be able to do it elsewhere
  • redesigned using feedback received from a private or public alpha phase, and a public beta phase

Development and technology

Redesigned transactional services should be:

  • developed using agile, iterative, user-centric digital development methodologies, using open source code by default
  • make use of common cross-government technology platforms
  • make use of and meet open standards
  • offer high-quality APIs, enabling reliable reuse by third parties and integration with other government services
  • capable of working on all common browsers and a wide range of web-enabled devices, including mobile phones
  • impartially, robustly and regularly tested throughout the design and lifetime of the service.

What kind of systems would we have in HE if we adopted this digital design approach?  How much money would we save?  So much money has also been wasted on big NHS IT projects, could an agile approach help make some real progress here too?

There’s much said about lack of engagement with educational technologies by teaching staff in HE.  Part of the problem could be that we’re too focussed on a particular technology like an off the shelf  VLE rather than how lecturers want to teach.  If we worked with teachers as the starting point and included students would the typical VLE look quite different? If it was designed and redesigned using data from feedback, would we be using something that had any resemblance to the current incarnation of Blackboard or Moodle?

VLEs were the topic for discussion on last week’s #UKmeded Twitter chat at the suggestion of Jess Palmer aka Minty Green Medic, who shared some frustrations with her institutional VLE.  Following the chat Aspirant Medic (Christopher McCann) blogged about bringing technology to medical education and how he’d like to see a new open learning environment emerge for medical education, an idea that was discussed during the chat.  Similarly in medical education the NHS eportfolio also causes frustration, you can frequently see tweets about this and there’s also discussion on the NHS Portfolio Revolution blog.  Recent NHS Hack days have looked at developments around the Portfolio. Matt Pendeleton has also shared some thoughts on engaging clinicians in the development of clinical systems based on his experience on recent clinical attachments.

Technology is generally becoming more accessible and we’re engaging with growing numbers of apps and websites to support different aspects of our work and play.  The user experience of these technologies is generally positive which is why there’s so much heart sinking when using many institutional IT systems. There’s been many a time when I’ve been using an app on my iPad or using some Web 2.0 tool and I’ve thought why can’t I have that functionality in the tools I have to use for work (eg learning repositories). I’m not alone here,  Jess, Chris and Matt have ideas and hundreds of others do too, students, staff, doctors, patients and adminstrators.  With an agile approach these individuals would be able to help contribute to developing solutions that really work.

So how do we get HE and the NHS to see the light about agile development in the way that the Cabinet Office has?  There needs to be a fundamental change in culture around IT projects, one that focuses on relationships and communities and that is inclusive.  It’s also likely that business and procurement strategies may need to change.  It’s been interesting to look at recent tweets about some of the issues around the NHS ePortfolio servers and to see that a simple and logical solution can’t be implemented because of finanical procedures.  There needs to be a realisation that infromation management touches every department and it can’t be looked at in individual silos but rather needs to be seen as a whole across the whole organisation.  It’s an area where we need to see strong strategic and creative leadership, a leadership that engages with stakeholders at all levels.

A few days ago Seth Godin wrote that “When everyone has access to the same tools

…then having a tool isn’t much of an advantage.

The industrial age, the age of scarcity, depended in part on the advantages that came with owning tools others didn’t own.

Time for a new advantage. It might be your network, the connections that trust you. And it might be your expertise. But most of all, I’m betting it’s your attitude.

There’s a lot of talk about competition in HE,  is our attitude to IT something which can help to give us an advantage?  How do we change the attitude and the culture around IT in HE?  How do we encourage our instituions to become agile so that UK HE can be responsive in an ever changing climate.  Maybe I’m just barking up the wrong tree!

I’d like to know what the catalyst for change was at the Cabinet Office.  If you know I’d welcome hearing from you.


WordPress in UK Education Event: Would you come? Do we need one? Are you using it?

At the end of July I shared a couple of links via Google+ and my Tumblr site about an LMS app theme for WordPress and WPLMS, both of which focus on developing LMS/VLE type functionality for WordPress.  I find this sort of stuff interesting because the team I work with have been migrating our teaching resources from Blackboard to a new learning portal built in WordPress.  This migration has been the culmination of three years work, starting with blogs on WordPress.com to support undergraduate teaching to then setting up our own WordPress multiuser site.  Feedback from staff and students have informed and driven our developments  to the point that our undergraduate medical curriculum is now delivered via WordPress.

Reading about LMS app theme got me thinking and I posed this question on Google +

I think I may have said this before but couldn’t a few of us in the UK using WordPress as an alternative to the more traditional VLEs work together to get some JISC funding to develop some useful WP educational plugins and functionality?

As Martin Hawksey quickly pointed out there are others using WordPress in education in the UK, there’s been interesting things going at the University of  Lincoln, Dumfries and Galloway College have been using WordPress as an eportfolio tool.  There’s also the work of Jim Groom at the Universty of Mary Washington, which was one of the initial triggers for my interest in WordPress, and more recently his DS106 cMOOC.  Steve Bonham joined the conversation which then spilled over to Twitter and Pat Lockley also chipped in and  we talked about the possibility of a meeting to showcase how WordPress in being used in UK HE and explore whether there might be opportunities to explore funding to support WordPress development.

So as the title of this post asks, do you think we should try and hold some sort of UK WordPress in education event?  Would you be interested, would you come?  There is a JISC WordPress listserv but it has very little activity.  There are growing numbers of individuals and organisations using WordPress in UK education, there are annual Blackboard user meetings and Moodle meetings and although there is annual UK Wordcamp there’s not an educational event.

Do we need an event?  Should we start a google doc where we could detail who’s using WordPress and how, a bit like Matt Lingard’s doc on UK VLEs?  Would you be interested in a Google Hangout for a starter discussion?  Would there be any chance of funding from JISC or other groups that might fund a WordPress special interest group or an educational WP hackday type of event?

I was going to publish this post following that conversation, but things were too busy and hopefully I’ve not missed a trick in not striking while the iron was hot!  What do you think, are you interested? Would be great to hear from you via the comments here, Twitter, Google+ and any other channels that this post might be shared.