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Category: DIgital Learning
The Student Futures Commission
To mark the launch of the Student Futures Commission, the UPP Foundation, using Cibyl as a research partner, sent out a survey to 1.5 million students at over 140 institutions to understand their university experience during the pandemic. 2,147 students responded between 14th-19th May 2021. Like the rest of us, students miss face to face community.
Students want universities to prioritise a return to in person teaching and are missing face-to-face interaction around their wider student experience, according to a major new survey.Student Futures Commission
The key findings:
- The preferences for study structure next year:
- 45% mostly in-person with online teaching once or twice per week.
- 29% fully face to face
- 21% mostly online
- 6% fully online
- The majority of students did not participate in any extracurricular activities this academic year
- 63% believe the pandemic has negatively affected them academically
- 48% do not believe they have missed any aspect of teaching despite disruptions to delivery
- 72% are neutral or satisfied with changes to academic assessments
- 65% believe their course will still help them find a job.
The full data set can be downloaded from the UPP Foundation website.
Advanced HE’s flexible learning framework
Flexible learning is about student choice, putting learners at the centre of the learning experience and providing them with the flexibility to access learning opportunities around the different areas of their lives. To deliver this requires balanced pragmatism in delivery methods and institutional agility in the structures and systems used by the university to provide choice in an economically viable and sustainable way.
According to the HEA’s flexible learning framework, a choice should be offered to students in how, what, when, and where they learn through the pace, place, price, and mode of delivery.
“When well supported, this positively impacts recruitment, retention and progression; widens participation; and offers opportunities to learners of all ages, backgrounds, ethnicities and nationalities.”Advanced HE
An undergraduate degree is 360 credits. A postgraduate degree is 180 credits. One credit is equivalent to ten notional learning hours; an undergraduate (UG) course should take a maximum of 3600 hours and a postgraduate taught (PGT) degree a maximum of 1800 hours. Current rules on the maximum duration of study for UG studies is eight years and five years for PGT; this means that the pace of study can be anywhere from 90 weeks to eight years at UG and 45 weeks to five years at PG based on a maximum 40-hour study week. Most university courses currently run off 32 weeks a year for institutional convenience, but the pace could be altered considerably to fit the student.
The place where learning is delivered or received is becoming more flexible. Traditionally courses have been offered on-campus with students travelling to the lecturer and their facilities. The Univerity of London began offering courses by correspondence in 18, posting out study materials, and asking students to attend in-person for the exam only. More recently, these correspondence courses have been replaced with online learning. As work-based learning becomes essential and workplaces increasingly partner with universities for higher education, this provision is being delivered in the workplace or other facilities where specialist equipment or experiences are avalible.
Most mature students see higher education prices as the most significant barrier to enrollment. Changes to funding have seen considerable drops in part-time student numbers over the last ten years. The Augar report made suggestions to address this, and the Government is set to enact many of these, including a part-time postgraduate loan that allows students to study flexibly. Many part-time postgraduate courses have begun to offer flexible payment options, including per module, per term, or annually.
The OECD lists the mode of study as the student’s study load, whether full-time or part-time, but may also refer to distance, a mixture of on-campus access methods, or various work-based learning options. HESA, the higher education statistics agency, lists up to 16 different modes of study, categorised primarily for funding purposes, including:
- Full-time – according to funding council definitions or other
- Sandwich – thick, thin, or other
- Part-time – regular, released from employment, or not released from employment
- Evening only
- Open or distance learning
- Writing-up – previously full-time
- Continuous delivery
These modes aim to provide students with options to access study that fits their need and availability.
Sign up to view the full framework on the Advanced HE website.
Retention vs Aquisition
The cost of attracting new customers in most sectors has been steadily rising for many years. The increasing Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) has been mirrored in the HE sector and significantly for online courses. This acquisition cost includes direct marketing such as digital advertising, staff salaries, marketing software, and other associated marketing and recruitment costs.
Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) is the cost of winning a customer to purchase a product/service.Wikipedia
A Guardian article in April 2019 lists the total marketing spends of several UK universities. The University of Central Lancashire spent £3.4 million on marketing in the 2017/18 academic year, the University of the West of England spent £3 million, and Middlesex spent 2.6 million. These figures only represent around 1.5-2% of total revenue but equivalent to between 370-280 students’ tuition fees. I could not find specific numbers for online courses but have observed in conference presentations that the marketing spend can be as high as 20% of the student fee, mainly due to a lack of scale.
Any rising cost in running a university has a significant effect. The student loan has been fixed since 2017 and does not rise with inflation. All things being equal, a fixed tuition fee loan means that each year universities need to grow or make cuts similar to inflation (1.6%) to break even. HESA data states that staffing costs represent 54.7% of university expenditure and has decreased by 6.54% over the last seven years. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated before the pandemic that at least thirteen of the one hundred and sixty-seven institutions were financially at risk, and several high profile universities, including the University of Leicester, have announced large scale redundancies.
Universities can start to address this freeze in tuition fee loans and increasing marketing costs by first focusing on customer retention and then on customer lifetime value.
Customer retention is the collection of activities a business uses to increase the number of repeat customers and to increase the profitability of each existing customer.Shopify
Customer lifetime value (CLV, or CLTV) is the metric that indicates the total revenue a business can reasonably expect from a single customer account throughout the business relationship.Hubspot
The Guardian article calculated that the University of Bedfordshire spends £432 per enrolled student; if that student stays for a three-year undergraduate degree, it will provide a £27,750 return if the student drops out the first year, this return reduces to just £9,250. HESA data states that 6.3% (20,295) of first-year, full-time UK-based students in the 15/16 academic year did not continue to their second year. That 20,295 students not continuing their course represents almost £190 million lost in the sector for just year two of a degree and double that for losses going into the third year.
“Evaluating who your customers are and dedicating time and effort toward re-engaging them is not only essential, but often comes at the fraction of the cost of sourcing entirely new ones.”Dynamic Yield
Student retention is not a simple thing, and some drop-outs may be unavoidable due to life circumstances. Still, this number can be reduced, especially for institutions with rates of 10% and above. The first step to retention is to collect data on why students are dropping out through exit interviews and use this to build an intervention process that can identify students before they pass the point of no return. A solid intervention process should set clear and high expectations, monitor against those expectations, and intervene when they are not met.
After addressing the most significant issues and with a solid tracking and intervention process, institutions can focus on personalising the student experience. Dynamic Yield, experts in online personalisation, suggest that loyalty and retention efforts should be data-driven and deliver captivating, tailored experiences. Retention efforts should be iterative to build on what works and lose what doesn’t.
The final piece of the puzzle is to focus on the lifetime relationship the student has with the institution. Most graduating students have loyalty to where they studied and will probably require significant upskilling throughout their careers. Universities should build on this relationship, and learning needs to provide ongoing qualifications for their alumni at critical stages of their working lives. Cross-selling comes at a significantly lower cost than acquiring new students allowing the courses to be more affordable or will enable more of the tuition fees to be spent on making the experience better.
Narrowing the digital divide
To learn online, you need a stable internet connection and an internet-enabled device such as laptops or smartphones. However, when the March 2020 lockdown hit in the UK and universities and schools moved online, 11% of households did not have access to the internet, according to the Office of Communications (OFCOM). One year later and that number was down to 6%.
A new OFCOM report on Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes published on the 28th of April states that “The pandemic had been the catalyst for a step-change in digital skills…” but warned that 1.5 million UK homes still do not have access to the internet. The research showed that 10% of users access the internet via a smartphone only, and 20% of children did not have constant access to a device for online learning during the lockdowns.
The recent Office for Students guidance paper found that around 30% of university students surveyed lacked good internet access, and 30% lacked a suitable study space. If the 30% from the survey translates to the whole 2.38 million UK student population, that is roughly 300,000 students with digital access issues.
During a regular year, this would have been covered by on-campus facilities. The University I work at provides computers in study spaces across its campuses, includes a computer finder tool in the student app, and high-speed internet in all its accommodation. But with social distancing and full lockdowns, these facilities were in limited supply, halls become the primary social spaces as external spaces were forced to close, and many students found themselves returning home to shared devices, bandwidth, and workspaces with parents and siblings.
The Gravity assist paper recommends that university providers make digital access a priority:
- Appropriate hardware for students to access course content with parity of experience.
- Appropriate software for students to access course content
- Robust technical infrastructure that works seamlessly and repaired promptly
- Reliable access to the internet with sufficient bandwidth
- A trained teacher or instructor equipt to deliver high-quality digital learning and teaching
- An appropriate study place that is quiet and consistently avalible
Most universities have adapted to the challenge, providing year-long laptop loans, broadband dongles, and technical support to those students that need it. Academics have rapidly upskilled with digital teaching practices and redesigning courses to adapt to the changing access to students. Software vendors like Microsoft and Virtual Learning Environment vendors like D2L have adapted too, rapidly releasing new tools and dramatically increasing infrastructure to handle the shift to online.
Many of these fixes were put in place as short-term solutions, and universities, academics, and tech companies must now find long-term solutions that do not disadvantage this 30% of students. The Office for students suggests that institutions start to engage with students individually before their courses start. Universities should offer solutions where needed, such as loaning laptops, financial support, and creative study space solutions, in the same way other additional needs are currently handled.
Flexible learning should hold an advantage for students from the most deprived areas of the UK, allowing them to study around their many additional commitments caring responsibilities, part-time work, and commutes. Significant progress has been made over the last twelve months to provide equal access to higher education; we need to put the same level of planning into maintaining digital access for all.
September 2021: Back to what normal?
Today I attended AulaCon, the annual conference of the UK based Virtual Learning Environment provider. The title of the event was ‘September 2021: Back to what normal?’ and hosted a range of expert speakers giving views on the future of higher education in the UK. the underlying theme for the day was that returning to campus is an opportunity to refocus on designing and delivering outstanding learning.
My three key takeaways:
- Lecturers must focus on doing what works best
- Returning to campus should be designed to build better learning communities
- Learning should be structured to spark curiosity
John Hattie opened to conference with a conversation about evidence-based teaching. He suggested the most lectures find a way to teach that works but do not then spend the time investigating the best ways to teach. Hattie, who has spent his career studying teaching methods that have the highest impact on student outcomes, recommends looking at the most successful practice in your institution and scaling that up as a starting point. Hatti also stressed the importance of monitoring student conversations and feedback and the impact of your teaching rather than being overly worried about the exact method. A final piece of advice that Hattie has picked up from working with athletes, a theme of this blog, is to start each teaching session by setting an expectation of what success in that session looks like and then trying to stick to that,
One of the common themes in student feedback this year has been the loss of community. The social elements of learning and being a part of the university community are essential to keep students engaged and feel belonging, helping them stay and succeed. Multiple speakers also pointed out that these communities should move beyond the classroom and individual modules; they should start in the transition period before students begin the course, build while studying, and continue after they graduate. Recommendations for building community came from several presenters; most said to start small, make it inviting for students to talk and take the time to build up trust within groups. Students need to feel comfortable interacting with each other and are not afraid to ask questions and make mistakes. Get students to start talking using breakout rooms and chat functions, and let them know it is there thinking you want to influence, not just taking in information. Conversations are also to keep students engaged in their learning. The critical point was that academics must be a part of the community to make them impactful and lasting.
Ramsey Musallam presented his take on how lessons should begin by sparking curiosity in students before delivering all the content. He suggested that story narrative such as the heroes journey could be used as a model for providing lessons where the students are moved into uncertainty through open questions and missing information. Only when curiosity is teased in students that the teacher can then reveal the complete picture. The narrative approach allows students to make connections between ideas and engage with the learning process. Musallam provides a lesson planning template lecturers can use to structure a session using the hero’s journey following the 5E inquiry learning cycle.
Aula has a fresh take on what a VLE should be and has built its platform on internet technology without the difficulties existing providers face with bloated, sometimes over-complicated software that has evolved over decades of updates to serve multiple industries across the globe. The co-founder and CEO, Anders Krohn’s focus on learning design is also refreshing. It is not yet clear how much of the market Aula will capture in the next few years, but the new kid on the block is set to disrupt the now established Virtual Learning Environment market currently dominated by three companies. The incumbents need to take note of Aula’s approach if they want to stay competitive.
The four points of a good start up pitch
This morning the following tweet was trending globally. Paras Chopra is a Delhi based tech entrepreneur and founder of Wingify, a web platform. Although I work in an established institution, I have created my learning design team from scratch. We are currently working on expanding our impact at the university, so it caught my interest.
According to Investopedia, an intrapreneur is “an employee who is tasked with developing an innovative idea or project within a company.” As an intrapreneur, you can borrow much of the behaviours and tools of an entrepreneur, such as risk-taking and innovative approaches to build and launch your internal project. The idea of a startup pitch for a new business function set up to target a new market, such as non-traditional students, can help to justify funding from the company in the same way a startup seeks funding from venture capital.
Paras’ four elements of a startup pitch are:
- How is the product 10x better than alternatives (with proof)
- What’s their moat
- How they can acquire users profitably at scale (with evidence)
- Hustles that the team has done in their careers
The first point, how is the product significantly better than alternatives, should be easy to answer and forms the basis of what your business function does. Once you have a hypothesis, it needs testing. Testing the product to get proof of its superiority over alternatives needs to be done with prototypes and prospective customer interviews in the early stages. Once up and running, the next job is to gain as much data as possible from early customers that the product is 10x better or continue to iterate until this is true.
A startups moat is how the new business can protect its product, gain and retain market share. A startup pitch must suggest how the company can avoid or create barriers to entry that stop other companies from taking over their business. Moats might include brand loyalty, economies of scale, geographical barriers, being first, integration with other parts of a supply chain and legal obstacles such as a patent. As an internal project, it is likely that fully integrating into the organisation, geographic access, and brand loyalty are likely moats to pursue.
Shareholders don’t pay for the castle, they pay for the moat.Warren Buffet
The prototype testing should provide some data for acquiring users as, without a solid plan to build customers, the rest of the plan is not important. Word of mouth is the most reliable user acquisition method, but some form of advertising will be needed for this to scale. Popular user acquisition methods include building a social media following, paid search ads and search optimisation, and ad agencies and networks. Internal project teams can use cross-promotion with existing users from other business areas.
The pitch is about getting much-needed funding to support growth. To get people to part with money, they need to trust the team can deliver on the other three points. Many venture capital firms and large companies may be more interested in backing people than the idea. Good people will adapt and change an idea till they find something that works. It is essential to leverage what the team had done before joining the startup in the early stages. This currency will only last so long before the people expect to see what the team members have been able to do since joining the startup. Spend time developing the narrative around the people in the team to build trust that you can deliver what you say you can in the other three points.
Paras Chopra list of four points for a startup pitch provides an excellent framework for either an entrepreneur or intrapreneur starting or building a new project. By focusing on how the product is better, how it will stay better, how it will grow, and evidencing that the team can deliver this, you will build trust from internal or external investors. Can you answer these questions convincingly for where you currently work? If you can, then great; if not, you know what you have to do.
Theory in use; how to be a better learning designer
You have beliefs about what creates good learning, and what doesn’t. This is called your ‘theory in use’. It is your personal construct, and is almost certainly not exactly the same as that of the very best expert teachers – yet! Your ‘theory in use’ decides pretty much everything you do in the classroom, so it is worth improving!Geoff Petty
During my teacher training, my tutors used Geoff Petting’s ‘Teaching Today‘ as a core text. It is a great book full of practical advice on how to be a great teacher. His other popular book, ‘Evidence-based teaching‘, based mainly on John Hattie’s meta-analysis on the effect sizes of different teaching methods, is even better.
The book suggests that the way you teach or design learning is based on two things:
- Theory in use – your principles of learning and teaching
- Teaching strategies – processes and practices for delivering teaching
Petty argues that the closer your theory in use reflects reality, the better you are as a teacher. He says that both your theory in use and your teaching strategies can be improved by constant research, experimentation, and reflection.
How well do you understand your theory in use and teaching strategies? Are they written down? How often do you add and adapt them based on student outcomes and feedback?
What is your theory in use?
Have a go at writing your theory in use down on a blank piece of paper with the Feynman technique to test yourself. Set a timer for around 20 minutes and start to write your underlying principles of learning and teaching as if you were explaining them to someone. Once you have everything out of your head, use books and the internet to fill in any gaps.
Try to evaluate how well you have tested your principles and how closely you feel they reflect reality. Spend the next few days reading up on the principles of expert teachers you respect, is there anything you can add to your list?
If you are serious about being the best learning designer you can be and provide students with a great learning experience, you need to improve your theory of use and teaching strategies. First, make sure you know what both of these are, then spend some time adding to it from great teachers who share their knowledge and finally use a learning cycle to add to and adjust them as you gain experience. The world needs better teachers, and reflective practice is the first step to creating more of them.
Kolb’s Learning Cycle
David Kolb published the book Experimental Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development in 1984 that introduced his learning cycle. The basic idea is that people learn from experience and that a structure can be put in place to support this learning.
Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.David Kolb
The cycle has four stages:
- Do: Concrete learning – encounter a new experience
- Review: Reflective observation – study and reflect on the experience
- Learn: Abstract conceptualisation – form new ideas or adapt existing ones based on reflections
- Apply: Active experimentation – apply new ideas to a unique situation
Kolb argues that all four stages must be present for effective learning to happen. A learning experience can start at any of the four stages but should move through the stages logically. The active experimentation forms the concreate learning for the next cycle allowing the process to repeat.
You might review something that happens at work, thinking about what worked and what didn’t and suggest why, using any data available to you. You can then create some general principles based on your reflections that can be applied in other situations. You can then plan another situation where you can apply these general principles. Finally, you can carry out your planned experiment and repeat the cycle, generating new or more robust general principles with each iteration.
This process can also be used as the basis for planning learning experiences for other people. At University, the learn stage would represent the lecture in a traditional course where existing theories help conceptualise a set of general principles. The additional steps might take place as either independent study, small group seminars, tutorials or labs.
When designing online learning that uses technology to reimagine the learning experience, these four stages can form a framework for the student’s interactions with materials, collaboration, and active learning. Students could work through the cycle each day, each week, each month, or the course could be designed as just one repetition of the process with the expectation that the student continues iterations once the course has finished.
Kolb’s Learning cycle is a simple introduction to structured learning that you can expand on with other approaches. Next time you are designing learning, think about if all four stages are present and experienced in a logical order for a more effective learning experience.
Prototyping in higher education course design
Universities can learn a lot about how to develop courses from product design. In England, a student will spend over £27k on course fees and give up three years of work to take an undergraduate degree, and they put their trust in the course team to make this worthwhile. The combined student tuition fees and education contracts in the 2017-18 academic year were £18.7 billion. At this size, the development of new courses should be a finely tuned process; many institutions have begun to invest heavily in making sure courses this is the case by hiring teams of Learning Designers. Learning Designers adapt many good practices from software and product design to develop offerings that meet the students’ expectations and long-term needs. Prototyping is one such tool helping universities develop great courses.
Prototype: a first or preliminary version of a device or vehicle from which other forms are developed.Oxford Languages
Prototypes are used to test a solution before the institution invests heavily in the full development of a finished product or service. In higher education, prototyping allows Learning Designers and course teams to test the learning outcomes, course narrative and student journey with prospective students before committing resources to develop it. It enables these teams to create increasingly complete versions of a course over time as an iterative process, reacting to regular feedback and changing trends. Prototyping a course should reduce development time and the need for changes once the course is live. It allows faster identification of the optimal model and avoids the trap of investing heavily in course offerings with significant flaws.
The idea for prototyping comes from evolutionary software development, where a first version is built from a rough specification and presented to users for feedback. Each prospective user experiments with the prototype and makes suggestions for improvements or refinements to the design. The development team then makes improvements based on this feedback and gives it back to users for further testing. The prototype and improvement process is iterative, repeated until the product is where it needs to be for launch.
Iterative prototyping process:
- Paper prototype
- Proof of concept
- Functional prototype
- Minimum Viable Product (MVP)
A paper prototype such as a solution presentation or module map is used as a conversation with students and demonstrate the offering to test whether your offering fits their problem or need. Once the idea is proven to be worth investment, a proof of concept can be created; this is an internal technical test to see if the product can be built with available technology and tools. Once the product or service is approved in principle and proved to be practical to deliver, a working prototype that approximates the final product without being fully finished is created, and further user testing is carried out.
Once the product passes the working model stage, a minimum viable product, the simplest possible customer-ready version, can be built and delivered and sold as a functional product. The product continues to go through developments based on feedback throughout its lifecycle, making sure it remains fit for purpose.
The prototyping process means users get to try the product early. It helps narrow down specifications, and users are more likely to accept the system if they have been involved in developing it. There are some downsides; the first versions a user sees might be of poor quality due to the speed of development, it is not always clear how many iterations the development team should carry out. Prototypes are often built without maintenance in mind making it harder to support long term.
There are two main ways to use prototyping. The first is evolutionary prototyping, where the prototype will become the final system once users satisfied. Significant maintenance work (refactoring) may be needed to keep these products running efficiently, so some people chose to start again once the final design is agreed upon. This second method is called throwaway prototyping, where the initial iterative development is used to determine requirements and then discarded. The product is then built from scratch with quality and maintenance in mind. Throw away prototyping can have a higher upfront cost and slow down the final product launch but should deliver higher quality and a cheaper to maintain end results.
Using prototyping in course design
In the course or module design process, the paper prototype as a module map can be created as the output of a design process such as the UCL’s ABC workshop. A proof of concept represents any technical testing needed to deliver the course vision, and a working prototype could be one hour or so of the course built in the VLE. A working prototype should be tested with at least five potential students in one to one interviews to pick up significant trends in how prospective students feel about the course’s viability.
The Minimum Viable Product is the first run of the course with live students. It is generally accepted that a course needs at least three cohorts to reach maturity, with refinements after each run; Quality Matters (QM) even suggests that a course goes through three complete cycles before a QM review is carried out. Your Course design process should have reviews built-in after each of the iterations to make sure identified changes can be made.
Get in touch with me on Twitter if you want to chat about course development ideas.