Mission, vision, and strategy

I am currently working on an updated plan for how the university will move forward with flexible learning. The last fourteen months have dramatically accelerated the plans I drew up in 2019, and so it is time to be more creative and ambitious. 

Thankfully we put into place three separate statements to help generate an online learning strategy: 

  1. Mission Statement – Who my team are, what we provide, who we serve, the benefits we deliver, and what is important to us.
  2. Vision Statement – A previously ambitious and unique idea of the university we want to create.
  3. Value Statement: Our beliefs about how work should be done, our standards, culture, and aspirations.

The mission statement has remained the same; we exist to move the university to a hyper-flexible delivery model that uses technology to redefine the student experience. The vision statement, however, like most universities strategies, has changed dramatically. The forced move to online learning has moved us past ambitious five-year plans and started creating conversations about what is possible, what is desirable, what works, and what future we want to make. 

The external work has moved forward too. Suppliers like Microsoft and the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) vendors have developed the tools available to universities, making them easier to use and adding functions to support emerging practice. The demand for online learning has grown as people have spent more time at home and working and collaborating via a computer screen; their views on learning have changed.

There are three main tasks for the vision statement:

  • Consolidate the existing flexible delivery.
  • Build on that good practice to make it better; more interactive, personalised, and accessible.
  • Think up what game changers might look like in the new university landscape.

Writing a strategy is about creating a plan for how we deliver a mission and a vision. If you have not updated these three documents recently, it might be time to start designing the new normal.

What is an MBA

In the early days of Google, the company got rid of all their managers. They assumed that as they hired the brightest and most driven engineers, they did not need layers of bureaucracy stopping people from doing their job. The Google founders believed if you get intelligent people, you could give them pretty much any problem to solve, and they would work out how to do it. Within a short period, Google brought management roles back and started the ‘re:Work‘ programme to find the best scientific management methods. 

Fredrick Taylor introduced scientific management in the 1880s, and the theory’s ideas of economic efficiency and labour productivity formed the basis of the first Master’s of Business Administration at Harvard in 1908. Taylorism was one of the first attempts to apply scientific ideas like analysis, empiricism, and standardisation of best practices to process management and the move from craft, to production, to mass production made famous by Ford and the Model T. 

Thankfully, management science quickly evolved to include social ideas like behavioural science and care for employees as people. Still, the basic idea of applying the scientific method to increase productivity forms the basis of management in most fields. The MBA is where people go to learn this science.

It is possible to learn everything you find on an MBA curriculum in books and on the job, particularly if you join a graduate scheme and the places you work have strong internal development programmes. Most companies do not provide a rounded leadership and management training and support offer, so bright-minded individuals either end up not meeting their potential or seeking degree courses.

Peter principle…people in a hierarchy tend to rise to their “level of incompetence”: employees are promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another.


There are two strong reasons to do an MBA; the first is that if you want to progress to senior positions with a major corporation, it is a requirement, the second is that you want to learn a scientific approach to managing effectively.

An MBA curriculum should teach the fundamentals of management. It will cover the core functional areas, including accounting and finance, human resources, marketing, operations. A good programme will also cover leadership ideas such as strategy, law, and ethics. Most MBA courses will provide optional modules that cover entrepreneurship, digital transformation and global trade.

Many tech entrepreneurs, such as Elon Musk, have talked down the need for an MBA favouring people gaining technical skills. But good managers are essential, and the skill set is different from just being good at the technical parts of a job. The best MBA courses are highly selective and expect people to have gained technical proficiency in their specialist area and have ample experience in their field before joining. 

First, get good at the technical parts of your field, and then, if you choose to move up in an organisation and manage people, get an MBA.  

Learning as a habit

I have signed up for an MBA. After a three year break, I am ready to get back to formal study. An executive MBA seemed to be the logical option at 37 and for the current stage in my career. Since graduating, I have enjoyed unstructured learning, reading around my interests and focusing my intellectual energy on work. I have made significant progress on my journey to expertise, and I am building something at work to create disruptive change. To take my output to the next level, I need to learn more.

A part-time Masters degree is a big commitment, and making the most of the opportunity can take up to fifteen hours per week. Formal courses are designing to help students find this time with the accountability of regular deadlines, the curated path through content, and a community of peers for support. However, Fifteen hours is a significant addition on top of working forty to fifty-hour per week, training for at least 10, and spending an hour publishing 500 words per day. Finding those fifteen hours is going to require a conscious effort to make learning a daily habit. 

I read an article today from John Coleman on the Harvard Business Review website that suggested five ways in which you can cultivate a learning habit

  1. Have a clear outcome
  2. Set goals to achieve your outcome
  3. Build a community around your learning
  4. Develop your ability to focus
  5. Use technology to support your learning

I have a clear outcome of improving my performance at work by completing an MBA and applying what I learn to my career. I have a realistic goal of committing fifteen hours per week or around two hours per day to study, writing, and apply what I learn to work. The time commitment is made more accessible while I am not commuting to and from work, and I have built up a habit of writing each day. 

The MBA as a format is unique because it is built around community learning, making my role contributing to the pre-made community rather than having to create my own. The skill to focus for two hours per day over eighteen months will be the biggest challenge, but it is something that I have been working on for a while with daily blogging and in elements of my work. Finally, working in EdTech, the use of technology to support my learning should be easy.

I will dedicate a future post to each of these habits but is a formal course something you are interested in doing? Are you able to cultivate your learning habit using Coleman’s five suggestions? 

Contact me on Twitter if you want to discuss building a learning habit or starting a new course of formal study.

The four stages of changing a VLE

Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) are web-based platforms for the online elements of courses. Over the past year, they have been essential tools in the delivery of learning as most teaching has gone remote, and their role is likely to remain a crucial part of courses in the future. With this dramatic increase in prominence, many universities are likely to evaluate the tools they currently have and begin to assess what is missing and how their platforms can be improved. 

The big question is should we invest in our current platform or spend the next two years and considerable resource moving to a different one?

Moving VLE is a two-year project. It can be broken down into two broad areas; year one is completing the tender process to select a new platform, and year two is for implementing that chosen solution. You can further break these two areas down into four six month stages for changing your VLE:

  1. Writing the tender
  2. Selecting a vendor
  3. Technical implementation and pilot
  4. User implementation

Writing a tender

The first stage starts with a review of the current platform’s strengths and weaknesses and a collection of requirements for the future of teaching and learning at the institution. You may choose to bring in selected vendors, including your current provider, to present their software’s latest features and future roadmaps as a soft market test before the decision to stay or move are finally made. The information collected at this stage is documented in the tender paperwork and sent to vendors for a written response. This final step and the next stage are likely to be through a formal procurement process that your finance team will support your through.

Selecting a vendor

The vendors will formally respond in writing to your tender documents, and the university will need to go through each scoring the responses against the requirements. The top-scoring vendors can then be invited in to present how their software will meet the stated needs. Getting as many academics involved in these sessions is crucial to selecting the best fit for the university. Once the successful VLE provider is specified, the contract negotiations and procurement checks start. Do not underestimate how long this process might take – I would suggest leaving a minimum of three months from when you have selected the successful provider for all the contract details to be agreed upon and data protection and legal checks to be processed.

Technical implementation

You now have a new shiny VLE! It needs to be integrated into the Universities systems, the single sign-on, the student record system, and other teaching and learning platforms. The platform will also have to be configured with the options that best suit the way it will be used. The better you have captured the requirements in stage one, the easier this stage will be. Getting the VLE set up and ready to use by the whole university can be challenging. A large scale pilot, moving over a department or school during the technical implementation, can be an effective way to identify and fix any minor oversights or fine-tune settings. Make sure you select courses that are happy to get the new shiny toy in the understanding that it will have bugs.

User implimentation

You have collected requirements in a tender document, you have selected the best provider to meet these requirements with a great deal, and you have integrated it into your systems; you now need to manage the change. The final stage can be the most disruptive; most academics will not have been involved in selecting the tool and will be unforgiving if the move over is not smooth. Communication, automated processes, well-planned training and support, and a much better system will help the user implementation but do not underestimate the resource requirements for this stage; it might cost in time and effort multiples of the contracts first-year costs. 

There is some excellent information on the internet on how to manage the four stages introduced here successfully. Most countries have HE specific learning technology networks that can provide a lot of help and guidance. If in doubt, get the VLE vendors in as early as possible to start the conversation and ask many questions, it is a highly competitive market between the top three providers, so the quality of the customer service can be outstanding.

Please feel free to get in touch on Twitter if you are going through the process and have any questions. I am happy to pass on the excellent help I have received during reviews and tenders in the past. 

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:

  1. Paper prototype
  2. Proof of concept
  3. Functional prototype
  4. 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.

Employer involvement in course design

Employability must be a core focus for all higher education. With 8% of employers not able to fill posts due to a lack of applicants with the right skills and 13% of employers having similar issues with a lack of skills in current employees, workplaces need more skilled individuals. The sizeable gaps in the job market represent lost productivity for those companies, lost taxes that could help the poorest in society, and a large number of individuals that could have more profitable and rewarding jobs if they only had the right skills.

These skills gaps come alongside record levels of HE participation, with more than 50% of the population gaining a degree by 30. The Government has labelled this problem the skills mismatch, and it is getting larger. Universities are responsible for addressing the mismatch by ensuring that graduates leave their courses with skills that can get them jobs.

One step towards reducing the skills mismatch involves employers in the design and delivery of university courses. Initiating and developing these relationships can be time intimidating and consuming for academics that have not developed skills in this kind of relationship building. Here I have suggested five steps to building solid collaboration with employers in a gradual phased approach. Any such effort aims to reach step five, at which multiple employers help to design a course to fill their skills needs and are happy to add their brand to marketing materials and employ graduates that the courses produce.

Five steps of employer involvement:

  1. Guest lectures
  2. Student site visits
  3. Employer developed assessments
  4. Student Placements
  5. Co-designed courses

Graduate outcomes; employment and earnings

The UK government released employment and earning statistics over the 2018-19 tax year for graduates yesterday. The figures cover employment and earnings for English universities, FE, and other providers delivering degrees, one, three, and five years after graduation.

The headline figures:

  • Median graduate earning five years after graduation: £27,400
  • Graduates in sustained employment, further study, or both five years after graduation: 86.7%
  • Female median earning lower than male five years after graduation (gender gap in earnings): 13.4%
  • Median earnings for EU and non-EU graduates from English providers and employed in the UK: £31,000 (EU), and £32,800 (non-EU)

The average earnings for a graduate five years after completing their courses is just £4000 a year less than the national average (£31,,461) for all employees, five years into their 35+ year working life and generally earn close to the national average (£31,100) ten years after graduation. Students studying in England from outside of the UK who stay to work after graduating earn significantly more than those officially domiciled in the UK. 

Despite making up 58% of graduates, females earn substantially less than male graduates on average. This gap has grown since 2017/18 (12.5%) and 2014/15 (10.7%); however, females are slightly more likely (2.6% after one year and 0.5% after ten years) to be in sustained employment or further study than males. Graduates from the Indian, Chinese, and White and Asian mixed ethnic groups had the highest earnings one, five, and ten years after graduation.

Graduate earning data is also provided by mode of study. Those who study a Sandwich course, which includes time spent on a business or industry placement and away from the university, were more likely to be in sustained employment or further study and earned more on average than full-time students. Part-time students performed less well in this measure, with only 82.7% in work or study ten years after graduating compared to 85.2% of full-time students and 86.2% of sandwich courses graduates. Graduates of part-time courses earn more initially after graduating than full-time students, but the difference reduces over time, with graduates from full-time programmes making more after ten years. The initial differences in part-time and full-time graduate earnings can in part be explained by part-time students generally being older than students on full-time courses. 

The complete data set can be found on the UK Government website. The Institute of Fiscal Studies has produced a report on the returns on degrees, looking at differences between socio-economic group and ethnicity. Interestingly the Lifetime returns on a degree still show a significant drop, with considerable variation, from the Government stated £400,000 used to justify student loans and the 50% participation rate target. 

Our analysis shows that over the whole life cycle, university pays off on average for men and women from all socio-economic and ethnic groups. Within all groups, more than two-thirds of university students benefit financially from their degrees. However, there are substantial differences in average returns between groups.

Returns vary relatively little by socio-economic status, with only those who went to independent schools – especially men – getting substantially higher returns from their degrees. Net lifetime returns are also high for those from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds, especially for women. At the other end of the spectrum, returns for state-educated men and women near the 54 top of the socio-economic status distribution are relatively modest

The returns to undergraduate degrees, IFS

How many hours does it take to transform a campus-based university module to online learning?

recent post on WONKHE, the higher education policy news site stated that it takes 80 hours to convert an existing module into an online or blended one. WONKHE gave no details for where this number came from other than academics had repeatedly mentioned it as the time required.

This comes as no surprise; speaking with hundreds of educators across the sector, we know that, on average, it will take 80 hours to transform a module from face to face delivery with lectures and seminars to high quality online or blended delivery.


I want to do a thought experiment for fun as to where these hours might go. I will make many assumptions, so comment at the bottom to correct me or suggest better hypotheses to use. 

My first assumption is that the 80 hours are on top of the existing workload allocation. The module team would use the standard hours for prep and delivery of live (synchronous) learning and facilitation of on-demand (asynchronous) learning.

Assuming the average university module is 20 credits, and one credit is equal to 10 hours of notional learning, students should spend 200 hours on average completing each module. 

The term ‘notional learning time’ is used to denote all time expected to be spent by a student in pursuit of a higher education qualification. This includes independent study and reading, preparation for contact hours, coursework, revision and summative assessment. This term is used because the actual time that learners need to achieve designated learning outcomes varies considerably. Notional study time of ten hours per credit is the agreed tariff that higher education providers use in designing their programmes and learning outcomes for higher education qualifications, with 360 credits making up an honours degree.


Let us assume that a module might be delivered over half an academic year, over 15 weeks, with a one hour lecture and two one hour small group seminars per week as contact time. That would mean that the academic would have 45 hours of teaching time to convert from campus-based to entirely online or a blend of online and campus-based. The other 155 hours would be made up of independent study and working on assessments. This conversion is due to the pandemic, so the independent study and assessment would probably not change too much, even if the assessment is transformed from a three-hour exam to a 24-hour open book exam done remotely.

So, 80 hours to convert 45 hours of teaching to online learning.

Let us further assume that the seminars will stay live (synchronous) through Microsoft Teams or Zoom or, if they are lucky with rooming and social distancing, stay live on campus. That gives us 15 hours of online content and activities to create to replace lectures. 

So, 80 hours to convert 15 hours of teaching to online learning. Suppose the academic spends four hours redesigning their module through a workshop activity like ABC, and six hours of training and experimentation to use the software. In that case, this gives our fictional academic 70 hours to create 15 hours of online content and activities for our made-up module.

70 hours of development time to produce 15 hours of video content, text, activities, and self-mark questions mean 4 hours and 40 minutes of development time per hour of online learning. 

Let us say that each one hour lecture is 40 minutes of content and then 20 minutes of discussion and answering questions on an audience response tool like Mentimeter. If we allocate 40 minutes of development time to set up a discussion forum and convert the questions to the VLE quiz tool, that leaves four hours to develop four ten minute videos or one hour per ten-minute video.

To sum up, a Module Leader might spend 80 hours converting their existing module to online:

  • 6 hours of training
  • 4 hours of design using the ABC model
  • 70 hours creating content
    • 1 hour for each 10-minute video
    • 40 minutes for each 20 minute activity time

This is a tough ask for academics that may not have the digital skills or technology at the start of the pandemic to transform their modules in just 80 additional hours. It is important to note that these 80 hours will not have been given to academics within their usual workload but instead done on top of everything else.

Let me know what you think in the comments or via Twitter if you want some discussion.

The basics of learner analytics

Each time a student logs into your institutions Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), a new session is logged in its database. The summary of login information can be helpful to assess student engagement over time. Three metrics are beneficial:

  1. Average session duration: The average time students are active on the VLE for each login.
  2. Frequency: how often a student logs in over a given period, such as a week or month.
  3. Recency: The duration since the last session on the VLE.

You can use the average session duration to assess if students are engaging longer with their online learning. This metric requires your VLE to accurately measure when the student is active and does not just have the VLE open in a tab while watching Youtube.com. Average session duration is beneficial at the course or module level to track the time students are on the VLE against the expected time and at the institution level to track progress from year to year.

The average frequency of sessions is a good marker for how engaged students are on a course. You may set expectations of how often a full-time student is supposed to log in, at least once per working day, for instance, and then you can track against this. 

Identifying students at risk of dropping out of a course is crucial as they may need support. Tracking students who have not logged into the system for a set number of days, say five during term-time on a full-time course, will allow you to identify students who might need academic or pastoral help. The recency table will help you determine how long it has been since students last logged in and show the number that falls outside your expectations. 

For these three metrics to be valid, you need to have trust in their accuracy; this includes the technical accuracy of how they are tracked and how it captures all the online activity a student might complete. Other metrics can help, but these are a great starting point.

The MBA Intervew

Most Executive MBA programmes are highly selective and use various tools, including an application form and interview, to pick the course’s best candidates. Admissions officers are generally interested in three things; are you going to complete the course, are you going to do well, and what do you add to the cohort. 

Attrition rates can be as high as 23% for UK Masters degrees in some subject areas, and on average, 10% of MBA students will drop out before the end of the course. Many senior roles require an MBA as evidence that the applicant has well-rounded business knowledge that will allow them to lead large teams with significant budgets. If you are in a role where progression requires an MBA, then that is a good marker that you will complete. If not, you will need to provide evidence that you can commit to a long term commitment alongside your work. 

Masters degrees are graded into three categories, Pass, Merit, and Distinction, with students required to get a minimum of 50% in assessments to get a Pass, 60-69% to get a Merit, and over 70% for a Distinction. A part of the national and global ranking of a course is determined by the percentage of students who graduate and what grade they achieve, so admissions offices can be highly selective to keep these statistics high. You need to show that you can work at a high level and produce academic writing.

What you add to the cohort is particularly important for an MBA, where discussion, peer work, and networking form a large part of the course and a significant selling point for applicants. The Admissions Officers need to know that you fit with the course’s ethos and that you have unique perspectives on topics that will be covered to add to academic conversations. Finally, it is important that after graduation, you will raise the prestige of the course and institution by achieving things of note. For an Executive MBA, you should have a clear idea of what you want to achieve professionally and what sets you apart from other applicants.

The interview

Your application form’s success is largely down to your experiences and achievements so far and is not something that you can quickly improve. However, the interview is a chance for you to provide context to your application, so it is essential to prepare. An Executive MBA is a significant commitment of time and money, so the interview is also an opportunity for you to ask questions to help you make your decision if the course is right for you. 

The Admissions Officer will want to ask you questions about elements of your application, including details of your experience, your career goals, and how the course will help get you there. It is an excellent idea to do some reading about the course, and advisor you are meeting, past graduates, and come prepared to discuss personal and professional achievements. University cohorts and graduate opportunities are increasingly international, so it is essential to note your international experiences. 

QS HE insights and rating organisation suggest some questions that you should prepare some answers for before the interview:

  • Why the EMBA and what led you to make the decision about attending business school at this time?
  • How will the EMBA assist you in achieving your short and long term goals?
  • What are you looking to get out of the program?
  • Tell us about your work experience and how an MBA will fit with plans for the future?

Final notes

  • Treat it like an important meeting and dress appropriately.
  • Know what makes you stand out from other applicants.
  • Have a clear idea of what you want to achieve in your professional career and why an MBA is necessary.
  • Do some brief research on the admissions officer you will meet to show your interest and commitment
  • Have some notes around:
    • Your background
    • Education
    • Career history
    • Goals and aspirations for the future
    • Why this specific course is of interest to you
    • Why a business degree