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.

Flexible learning in higher education | Advance HE
Advanced HE Flexible learning framework

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

Pace

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.

Place

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. 

Price

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.

Mode

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.

Utilitarianism and skills

The FT published an interesting article yesterday on the current financial troubles facing universities by both tuition fee freezes and, more recently, the changes enforced by the pandemic.

The article ended with paraphrased comments from Professor Graham Galbraith, vice-chancellor of Portsmouth university:

The bigger danger to universities was a “utilitarian” government view that they existed only to train workers in “skills the government decides are needed”. “Our broader role in producing well-rounded graduates . . . is being lost,” he said.

FT

First, Is a utilitarian view a bad thing for a government to take on mass education? 

Utilitarianism: the doctrine that actions are right if they are useful or for the benefit of a majority. The doctrine that an action is right in so far as it promotes happiness, and that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct.

Oxford Languages

Second, how are the government deciding on the skills needed?

“The drive to place employers at the heart of the skills system comes as the Prime Minister launches a new Build Back Better Business Council. The new group will see business leaders work directly with government to fuel the Covid-19 economic recovery.”

Pioneering reforms to boost skills and jobs, Gov.UK

After years of government-supported rapid expansion, in part at the expense of cash-starved further education colleges, the university sector faces genuine challenges. According to the Office for National Statistics, university student numbers have almost doubled since 1992. Graduate numbers are now over 50%; informed by the Augar review, the government has moved its attention to the other 50%. 

Forward-looking universities are working with the government to deliver new qualification such as degree apprenticeships and higher technical qualifications. Both parties are working with businesses to address the genuine global, national, and regional skills gaps. Students, too, are looking for the promise of a more economically secure future and are voting with their feet towards attractive courses, reputable universities, and the perceived boost to career opportunities.

The solutions are far from perfect and often seem like two steps forward one step back, but they are transparent in their direction of travel and open to universities involvement in helping write how we get there. What is included in courses to make students well-rounded is still in the control of those delivering them and businesses are still keen on students that can think, solve problems, and be agile. Universities need to decide if they want to be small elite institutions that service a minority or mass centres of learning that prepare students for a better future.

The tricky thing about a free market in higher education is that it is democratic; the supply and demand have to respond to each other.   

New daily exercise recommendations for healthy

The current recommended levels of physical activity to reduce the risk of early death by up to 30% is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity, or a combination of the two per week. Just under a third of people globally do not achieve this minimum standard and it is higher in richer countries. But a new study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine has found that these recommendations for activity levels are not enough to avoid chronic illnesses for those that spend most of their day sitting down. 

The study looked at the effects of various daily amounts of different intensities of exercise, lack of exercise, and sleep on early death using six previous studies covering over 130,000 adults in the UK, US, and Sweeden. The paper suggests that most of us in the UK and other wealthy countries spend up to twelve hours a day sitting and so require higher levels of movement to counteract the negative effects of a sedentary life than those that sid for just six to seven hours used to model the original recommendations. They suggest a minimum of three minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise or twelve minutes of light physical activity for every hour spent seated each day. 

For a person who sits twelve hours per day, the recommendations would mean 36 minutes of vigorous or 144 minutes of light activity each day. If we just followed this for five days per week that is 180 minutes of vigorous exercise, 2.4 times the amount previously suggested for the same level of risk reduction. If you are in bed for eight hours and working for eight to nine hours and then sitting in front of the TV in the evening it is likely that twelve hours seated is realistic and possibly low for some people. 

In addition to increased weekly exercise time to offset all the sitting, the paper also suggests using a variety of movements each week to accumulate the required vigorous or light activity. This means that if a person had previously completed three to four runs per week to get in the minimum recommended activity, then adding some strength training, a swim session, and a bike ride could bring better health benefits than more running when using the new benchmarks. For the health benefits, the important thing is to get your heart rate up each day and use a variety of movements across the week, so be creative and use what you have. 

Above the suggestion that people should create a daily exercise habit, The study also suggested that moving regularly between exercise and getting good amounts of daily also presented benefits. The UK National Health Service has some good suggestions for exercise and the Canadian government has already adopted a daily approach to movement

On this blog, there are recommendations of training goals for running starting at the beginner level, suggestions for strength and conditioning using kettlebells, and recommendations for four-minute movement breaks that can be used throughout the day.

Project Hail Mary

There are certain books and films that make me want to be smarter. These works of art are celebrations of intelligence and innovation and raise expectations of what is possible. Films like Good Will Hunting, The Theory of Everything, Hidden Figures, Limitless, all three Ironman movies, and The Imitation Game inspire me to think differently about solving problems. However, there is no better celebration of maths and science than Andy Weir’s books.

Weir wrote his first released full-length novel, The Martian, as a series of blog posts as an intellectual activity while working as a software engineer. He built up an audience of around 3000 hard-core science geeks by writing stories that included lots of maths and science. He researched using Google and got help and feedback for readers on the areas he was not so sure about, like chemistry and electrical engineering.

I have just finished Weir’s latest book, Project Hail Mary. I will not add spoilers, but if you loved the highly competent characters and pragmatic problem solving mixed in with a series of science lessons and sarcasm does not disappoint. 

Why equality, diversity, and inclusion matter

Equality is one of the central ideals of a liberal democratic society; Everyone is created free and equal and should be treated as such by law. Equality is also the route to prosperity and ensuring that every generation will be better off than their parents. It is about a universal commitment to individual dignity, an open market of ideas, and a belief in human progress brought about by debate and reform.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article one, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

There are significant problems in human society; extreme poverty and widening inequality, the need for universal health care and education, and a changing egology brought about by human industry. People need the freedom to choose how to live and a commitment to the common interest for these issues to be addressed.

A competitive meritocracy creates prosperity by ensuring that the best ideas win, but it is often closed to the poorest in society, and there are barriers to entry that need to be removed. Providing people with individual dignity and self-reliance generates sources of new thinking and better ideas. Society needs to value equality, diversity, and inclusion and understand that different perspectives are essential for progress.

Equality, diversity, and inclusion

The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights set out in 1948 lists thirty articles providing an international standard of equality. Within the UK, The Equality Act 2010 lists specific characteristics that are protected under law:

  • age
  • gender reassignment
  • being married or in a civil partnership
  • being pregnant or on maternity leave
  • disability
  • race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

Equality: the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, or opportunities.

Oxford Languages 

Diversity:  the practice or quality of including or involving people from a range of different social and ethnic backgrounds and of different genders, sexual orientations, etc.  

Oxford Languages

Inclusion: The practise or policy of providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those who have physical or mental disabilities and members of other minority groups.  

Oxford languages

A commitment to equality, diversity, and inclusion provides a fair society where everyone has the chance to create the life they want and have a positive impact on society. Institutions like universities must provide access to opportunities for anybody prepared to put in the hard work to create a better life. They also must provide society with a broad and diverse range of skilled individuals with unique ideas and perspectives to solve the complex problems we face. 

How many hours will you work in your career?

The website 80,000 hours, created by academics at Oxford University, provides a rough estimate of the average number of hours people will work in their lives:

80,000 hours of work in your career = 40 years x 50 weeks x 40 hours

But how does this relate to the reality for someone in the UK?

92,684 hours of work in a UK career = 47 years x 46.4 weeks x 42.5 hours

This number is considerable, but the equation is highly variable based on your work. If you take an academic working at an English university, the working years, weeks and hours contracted will be less, but actual hours might be greater. 

If you started paying into a pension before 2011, it might be possible to retire at 60, and you likely stayed in education through to a PhD so graduated at 26, giving just 34 years of ‘work’. A full-time academic ‘contracted’ hours might be 37 per week, and work 44.4 weeks with 38 days of leave, including bank holidays. 

This fictional academic could work just 55,855.2 hours in their career based on contracted hours. However, this is a romantic bare minimum, and self-reporting on working hours is much higher. 

The question is, what will you do with the hours you have left? 

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.  

UK Food Banks

My parents are members of a growing group of forty thousand volunteers that collectively give over four million hours per year at food banks set up and run by their church, community, or a charity to support those struggling to buy food. The Black Country Food Bank is one of over 2,200 food banks in the UK that give out emergency food parcels at least once per week. 

A food bank is a charitable resource which distributes food to those in need of it at least once a week.

Commons Library
Source Trussell Trust

Food banks began appearing in the UK around 2000 when the Trussell Trust opened its first in Salisbury. As of February 2021, the independent charity Trussell Trust runs over 1300 of the nation’s food banks, with a further 900 independent food banks registered with the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN). Food backs were started in the US in the 1960s and are now present in many healthy countries. According to the food aid network, over half of the registered food banks in the UK are run by Christian groups, 43% by secular groups, with the remaining run by other religious groups such as Sikhs and Muslims.  

According to the Trussell Trust, “people use food banks only when they really have to“, with referrals to these services living on an average of £50 per week after housing costs and 20% saying they have had no income at all in the month before they receive a food parcel. These people often have to choose between paying to keep their home, gas and electricity, and food. 75% of households that use food banks have at least one member with a health issue, and 54% are somehow affected by mental health problems. Problems with the introduction of Universal Credit and cuts to public services have increased the use of Food Banks by 73% over the last five years, and 75% of the existing food banks have opened since the banking crisis in 2008.

Stats on usage increases over the last year vary and use a variety of time frames. According to the Government’s Food banks in the UK report, the number of emergency food parcels provided by Trussell Trust during the pandemic has increased by 47% to over two and a half million, and 88% from independent providers according to IFAN. Pre-pandemic, the Trussell Trust State of hunger report estimated that up to 2% of UK households had used a food bank in 2018/19. Since the pandemic, the number has risen to 7% and 13% of those with children, according to Government COVID-9 consumer research

The food that makes up the emergency parcels is provided primarily by individual donations but is supported by the UK Government, supermarket chains, and local businesses. The public gives up to 90% of the food handed out by the Trussel Trust; you can find out how to donate to your local bank on their website.

You can read the governments full research briefing on Food Banks in the UK on the House of Commons Library website. 

Running to Explore

Photo by Ben Mack on Pexels.com

For many of us, running is the best way to explore a new location. We take running shoes with us on holidays and business trips and make sure we pop out on our first day to navigate the local area. But how many people truly explore the roads and trails where they live?

In 2020 I set myself an ambitious annual mileage goal that significantly increased the frequency and distance I ran each week. When the first UK lockdown came in March 2020, we were stuck inside with only a single outside exercise session per day for liberation. Conveniently lockdown coincided with the release of the Routes function on Strava.

For Strava Premium members, the Routes function allows you to enter the distance you want to run, whether you want a flat or hilly route, and choose between a trail or road surface. An algorithm then calculates three routes from your starting point based on the most run paths by local runners. You can choose one of the routes or rerun the algorithm to get additional options. 

Once you have selected a route, save and star it to upload it to your Garmin GPS watch, and it will appear the next time you sync. You can load the course on your device and follow the audio instructions and map prompts for your run.

I used the Routes function for my runs each morning and discovered all the hidden trails in and around my local town. As the year went on and my routes got longer and longer, including a few 25-mile off-road test events, I began to rely on the Explore function to provide new exciting trails. During the summer, I got away for a break to the English south coast and another to Burgen, Norway and discovered some fantastic trails with the added benefit of not needing to carry a map. 

I use the Fenix 6X Pro Solar, and Strava Premium is around £70 per year, so it is not a cheap solution, but I bought the watch before the tool existed and signed up to Strava for other features, so it works for me. I have been told that Garmin has a similar function built into Garmin Connect, and there are much cheaper watches on the market if you need a more affordable option. 

Exploring the trails around my local area and running a different route most days allowed me to keep excited about running during the lockdowns and cancelled races. I guess a better option would be to join a club and learn the local trails and roads from other runnings in your area, but if you travel a lot and run at strange times (Strava had my average time at 7 am), this might be the perfect option.