The Professors Profess… The Future of British HE in 2020

As everyone is uneasily waiting for the nearly £4 billion cuts to the budget for higher education in the 2010 Spending Review to be announced today, EducationGuardian pre-emptively published the predictions of UK academics about the impact of the funding cuts for the next ten years. Below is a selection of what they thought was coming.

The rise of the “black arts” of enrolment management
Prof. Claire Callender from the Institute of Education in London thinks that universities will be at the core of a quickly developing industry of enrolment management, calculating the number of students that can be recruited at different price rates, rates of discounts for different groups of students, etc. If Tesco can do it, why not universities? Buy one degree in chemistry, get one free in history, anyone?

Socrates in the local chippy
Prof. Gillian Evans from the University of Cambridge was concerned with the recommendation of the Browne’s report to end public funding for all subjects not considered priority, i.e., courses other than science, technology or courses not deemed to be providing “significant social returns.” In her scenario subjects such as palaeography or philosophy will have to vacate the publicly funded buildings and go back to the Aristotelian peripatetic method in the streets.

RyanAir Universities
Roger Brown from the Centre of Higher Education Research Development forecasts the emergence of a tiered system like the one in the USA. At the top there will be a small group of elite institutions which will be charging the highest fees. Then there will be the vast majority of “no-frills” universities, teaching mainly applied courses.

What I found surprising in the scenarios discussed by the Guardian was the lack of mention of learning technologies as a factor which will play a crucial role in helping universities pull through what without a doubt will be a very difficult shake up. A scenario by the BBC did foresee an increase in the provision of online courses, describing the mobile learning experiences of fictional students of the future.

Disturbingly, however, instead of drawing upon the advances in innovative learning and teaching for distance learners for which there are numerous examples amongst British universities (the University of Leicester for example has more than 8000 distance learners, the Open University would be another excellent example), the report seemed to promote the work of a private, for-profit, non-university provider, which “is positioning itself in this market and has already made the content of some courses wholly accessible via mobile phone.”

I think in the climate to come it will be more important than ever for institutions to be able and willing to share their experiences in using learning technologies to offer no-cost or low-cost solutions for learners and teachers, especially those that have been peer-reviewed.

20/10/2010 Sandra Romenska
Creating Academic Learning Futures (CALF) project


BDRA and Janus

Janus, the Roman god who gave his name to January, looked in two directions at once. The same is true, in more than one respect, of BDRA.

First, although it is a research alliance and has a particularly strong research record, BDRA is also a teaching group, through its Carpe Diem workshops and dissemination of its research findings. Its teaching activities, based in part on its research, will be very much enhanced by the MIET programme soon to be launched.

Second, BDRA faces both into the University of Leicester and outwards, well beyond it. Through its staff collaborating with other departments and units in carrying out research and teaching, BDRA has a greater impact internally than is usual for groups of its size and character. Beyond the university, BDRA has become well-known through bidding successfully for research funds from national bodies such as JISC and the HEA, as well as through conferences and publications. But it has also entered into partnerships involving other universities keen to upgrade their students’ e-learning.

As a Visiting Professor in BDRA, I’m aware of the wide range of BDRA’s activities and the heavy workload of its staff. This blog displays some of what’s going on, but there is more, much more, if you visit BDRA’s web site.

Janus is sometimes regarded as the god who looks forwards as well as backwards. BDRA staff can look back with pride at their achievements. As for the future, BDRA is at the forefront: it looks ahead, like Janus.

David Hawkridge

The future’s not too far off

In 2008 as part of Beyond Distance’s annual conference we ran a session on the lines of BBC’s ‘Dragon’s Den’, where e-learning researchers and practitioners were invited to pitch ideas for funding support to an expert panel.

Conceived as a forum for bringing ideas through a process of scrutiny and providing feedback to the proposers, the ideas pitched were for real but there was no actual pot of funds available to back the ideas.

One of the proposals that was considered ‘fundable’ then was for an e-paper and the technologist who proposed it made a spirited defence of the proposal in the face of stringent questioning by the experts.

The proposed  e-paper was suggested to be a rewritable and flexible display – but not foldable – that was proposed as a significant step-forward from the tethered and portable display units that we were used to.

The logical next step to this was e-readers and tablet PCs, the current pinnacle of which is Apple’s iPad. The reason I mention the ‘futuristic’ proposal from 2008 is within two-and-half year time span ‘electronic paper’ which is bendy, able to retain an image and electronically rewriteable – is getting closer all the time.

In January 2010, LG Electronics showed off a 19in flexible e-paper, and companies such as Plastic Logic and E Ink are getting electronics that look closer to paper all the time.

So the next time an idea is pitched or you spot something interesting in a sci-fi narrative, don’t be surprised to see it in a shop window sometime soon.

Jai Mukherjee, Beyond Distance Research Alliance

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly?

The Good

It’s been one of those weeks where I have initially despaired of being able to find the open source software that ticks all the boxes of what I am trying to do.  I’ve been looking for free, easy to use video editing software that allows you to overlay either an image or another video.  Naively I thought this would be easy to find.  Turns out there is a lot of great free photo editing software out there (GIMP anyone?), but video editing software is thin on the ground. Finally I found the answer in VideoSpin, which is free open source video editing software from Pinnacle.  Pinnacle are part of the Avid family and I’ve seen their programs used in professional video editing suites so felt that VideoSpin could be a little gem of a program.  It is incredibly good as it makes editing video a lot easier but also means that with the videos from LFF10 we can overlay new images to block out any that infringe copyright or, if necessary, block out entire frames of video. 

The Bad

While editing these videos has become an enjoyable challenge (thanks to the discovery of VideoSpin, and honestly I’m not working on commission), there is the matter that an hour’s worth of video means a large file size.  Not necessary a problem if you are planning on keeping these files to yourself but when trying to place these files in an OER repository it can become a not-so-enjoyable challenge and one that we are still working on.  While using a friendly file format (MP4) and a smaller screen size (320 x 288) helps reduce the amount of megabytes in the video files we are still looking at 40-60MB worth of footage. But the finished video files are well worth a watch and will help us extend the impact of LFF10 so file size and storage remain high on my (and the other learning technologists) to-do list.

The Ugly?

I was going to use this heading to make unnecessary jokes at the Zookeeper’s Skoda, but since I’ve driven this beast myself I do have a new found respect for it. So I have decided to pick up on a news item that has been around for a while: broadband connection speeds.  The BBC has a couple of current news stories about this:

With the amount of photos, audio and video that are uploaded, downloaded and shared on the Internet, the need or want for everything to be faster to keep up to date with all the new developments in browser-based technologies, e.g. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, could become a real problem.  The first news story highlights some innovative ways of getting broadband, but it looks like maintaining and improving these speeds and connecting the entire UK could be tricky.  Perhaps this is an ‘ugly’ future?

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist

Latest: the future of learning’s coming along (CALF)

BDRA’s Creating Academic Learning Futures (CALF) project, in collaboration with the University of Falmouth, is looking at the future of learning. If you’d like to know more, there’s a blog for the project, videos and a wiki.

Last December Sandra Romenska blogged about CALF at Online Educa in Berlin. She mentioned Lord Puttnam (Chancellor of the Open University), one of those behind an initiative to change how we think about education. There’s a We Are the People Weve Been Waiting For website. There’s also a 77-minute documentary. I watched it recently: it’s thought provoking but has too many of the great and good, as well as five children who speak up well about what they haven’t had.

For contrast, you may like to look at George Siemens’ 9-minute video, asking is it possible to de-school society? Across the water, Stephen Downes says that according to the New York Times, “an American kid drops out of high school at an average rate of one every 26 seconds. In some large urban districts, only half of the students ever graduate. Of the kids who manage to get through high school, only about a third are ready to move on to a four-year college.”

Efforts to use IT to upgrade education still fail catastrophically sometimes: in South Korea the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology thought it saw the future and spent about US$250 million to install 65-inch electronic blackboards in 256 middle and high school classrooms across the country, only to find they are little used. For 2010, Lev Gonick considers IT in Higher Education.

Maybe Harvard has a better idea for influencing the future of learning. Stephen Downes notes that to create a new generation of educational leaders, Harvard is launching a three year, tuition-free doctorate which will include a final year field placement. It will initially offer places on the Ed.L.D to just 25 candidates.

Have a look  at the Educause Magazine for January-February Innovation: Rethinking the Future of Higher Education.

The best news is that BDRA is aiming to launch an MSc in Innovative Education and Training (Learning Futures). More details soon.

David Hawkridge

Happy Birthday, Internet!

Yesterday, 29 October 2009, marked forty years since the first pieces of data travelled via a computer connection between the University of California in Los Angeles and the Stanford Research Institute. The BBC published an insightful account of the fascinating early years of the internet, which by 1971 was already connecting universities on the East and the West Coast of USA. Looking at the two solitary lines on the map illustrating the early net I could not help but feel overwhelmed by the speed of the change which has thrown us into the super-connected super-fast world of today. And I wonder if in 2050 there might be someone, writing a blog or whatever the communication channel of the day is, reviewing technology from 2010 and thinking “If they only knew what was coming at them…”

Following the links on the BBC website I listened to the oldest computer music recording – Baa Baa Black Sheep – played on a Ferranti Mark 1 computer at the University of Manchester in 1951. Below is a photo of the “Player” followed by a photo of a music player of today. Can you spot the 7 differences?

 Manchester's Baby


In coverage of the other astonishing talents of the machine, a BBC reporter breathless with excitement revealed that “the electronic brain” could tell you whether 2 to the power of 127 is a prime number in 25 minutes, compared to the 6 months it would take for the human brain to make the calculation.

Every time that I get reminded of the amazing progress that has been achieved since these early days of computer technology, I ask myself – what could possibly come next? Can a music player become even smaller? Or bigger? Or disappear completely and leave the music streaming through the air? Sometimes I discover I sympathise more than I would have liked with Charles H. Duell, the Commissioner of the US Office of Patents who said in 1899 that “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

 Any trip down history lane would be wasted if one comes back without a lesson or two for the future. One of the comments in the BBC material on the early net could turn out to be just that. It is about the initial reaction to the idea for a computer network – “A horrible idea” people thought. Larry Roberts, the MIT scientist who was working on the project said that institutions were opposing the concept because they wanted to keep control of their resources. Now that objection suddenly does not come across as outdated and archaic as the Ba Ba Black Sheep music player, does it? Blackboard, anyone? Are there ground-breaking, rule-bending, mind-blowing innovations at the door step of higher education institutions today that are being shunned because people want to keep control of their resources?  What can we do about it?

Sandra Romenska



Exciting times at Beyond Distance

We already know that life at Beyond Distance is never boring. Actually, things are both challenging and exciting … and about to change up a gear once more. Consider the following:

  • The new Strategy for Learning Innovation was signed off by the University’s Senate in July. This document will lead to further major developments in terms of our work, our research outputs and how the University sees — and seizes — the future of HE learning and teaching.
  • A proposal for new PG academic programme on the Future of Learning in HE is being developed for approval.
  • New staff members have already been and are being recruited, bringing new blood, additional expertise and diversity to the team.
  • We are moving to new premises within the University in the coming weeks, which, among other benefits, will enable us to relocate and enhance the Media Zoo .
  • … and much, much more.

I invite readers to watch this space, as Beyond Distance prepares for the very exciting times ahead.

Alejandro Armellini
12 August 2009

Pianos – New Facebook? A Story About Non-Digital Disruptive Innovation and Bishops Itchington

It is hot, hot, hot, isn’t it? And with everyone trying to make the best out of the British summer while it lasts, people are crowding the Great Outdoors – i.e. any horizontal patch of grass they can spot.
Take Leicester Square in London. On Tuesday it contained hoards of people, certainly equivalent in numbers to the population of Bishops Itchington (I have no idea what that number actually is, and if you insist, yes, I did choose it as example because of the name, and yes, it is a real place.)
There were people sitting on the benches, lying on the grass, splashing in the fountain, presumably some were pick-pocketing while others were buying ice-cream, smudging ice-cream on their clothes, removing ice-cream smudges from their clothes – the usual pastimes. And then, there was someone playing the piano. Only in this case, it was not the usual street performer. It was a young guy, looking a bit shy and a bit like a tourist and playing a bit out of tune a Rihanna tune. And yet, he was surrounded by people, listening intently, smiling, applauding him encouragingly, some recording his performance on their phones. Passers-by stopped, joined the little crowd surrounding the piano, listened and started conversations with other people. When the player finished, he got up and his place was taken by a girl who had been standing in the audience, until her friends pushed her forward. She played beautiful classical music, attracting more people to the little crowd. What was going on?
It was all part of an art project – Piano in The Street – by the artist Luke Jerram. The project involves placing 30 pianos in open public places. Anyone can play them. On his website the artist says that the pianos in the street are meant to be an interconnected resource for people to express themselves, and like Facebook, to connect and to create. This is what Luke Jerram says on his website:
“Why is it that when I go to the laundrette I see the same people each week and yet nobody talks to one another? Why don’t I know the names of the people who live opposite my house? Play Me, I’m Yours was designed to act as a catalyst for strangers who regularly occupy the same space, to talk and connect with one another. ..Disrupting people’s negotiation of their city, the pianos are also aimed to provoke people into engaging, activating and claiming ownership of their urban landscape.”

In Leicester Square it was fascinating to watch how a piece of technology without a single computer chip in it, a technology which has existed for the past 300 years can be re-invented to bring people together in an innovative and creative way. Especially as the little old piano, covered in stickers and graffiti, was surrounded by the big billboards of the cinemas in Leicester Square, with the images of the super-tech, overpowering Transformers 3 and Terminator 4 staring down coldly at the busy chattering human crowd. I couldn’t help but connect the little piano’s magnetism to the playfulness, inquisitiveness and social learning in human beings, beautifully illustrated by Prof. Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall. And it made me think – how much space is there in the pedagogies of today for curiosity, experimentation and creativity by the learners? How much do we want it to be tomorrow?

02/07/09 University of Leicester BDRA
Sandra Romenska

Crime Scene Investigation in the Garden of EDEN

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is an American TV series which follows the investigations of a team of Las Vegas forensic scientists, trying to solve mysterious and unusual murders. EDEN is the European Distance and E-Learning Network whose annual conference took place last week in Gdansk, Poland. The link between the two? I found it in a presentation during the EDEN conference, which felt as an inverse “Eureka” moment. And by an inverse “Eureka” I mean the experience of one of the protagonists in the latest Terminator movie when he discovered he was not human as he believed but a machine, programmed to believe it was human (apologies for the spoiler). A lot of pieces fall into place and make sense but you are none the happier.

The presentation that brought all of these analogies was called “Using Multiple Online Security Measures to Deliver Secure Course Exams to Distance Education Students” by a team from Pennsylvania State University’s World Campus. After two days of discussions and demonstrations at EDEN of the power of new technologies to unlock learners and teachers’ creativity, the promise of new and exciting ways for collaboration and discovery for the future of learning, of openness and freedom, the presentation from Penn State suddenly brought home the fact that there exists a very real and very different possible future for learning – that of the CSI approach I mentioned in the beginning.

The security measures in question were brought in at Penn State University in response to the Higher Education Reauthorization Act, effective August 14, 2008 in the USA, that requires institutions to authenticate the identity of distance education students. An excerpt from the Act goes like this:

“The agency or association [i.e., the accreditor] requires an institution [i.e., a college] that offers distance education or correspondence education to have processes through which the institution establishes that the student who registers in a distance education or correspondence education course or program is the same student who participates in and completes the program and receives the academic credit.”

While this sounds very sensible and necessary, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable with the set of measures that Pennsylvania University was advocating for the implementation of this requirement, or as they called it The Proctored Exam. It involves biometric authentification (the students are supplied with a device that collects biometric data, a bit like the equipment Border Police use); Real-Time Data Forensics (apparently the typing pattern of each of us is unique, like fingerprints and the Proctoring Exam software requires the examinee to type randomly generated text until enough data is collected to validate their identity); constant live webcam feed, capturing the room in which the student is taking the exam; a piece of software which record every key stroke during the exam and takes control over the students computer, blocking access to the machine’s web browser and all other programmes apart from the exam software. All of those. The reason I keep referring to movies in this blog post is that it is only in movies that I have seen so much technological control over an activity – be it Crime Scene Investigation or Terminator. It made me think that the abundance of fast accessible open knowledge and innumerable possibilities to do things with this knowledge will not necessarily lead to a future of freedom, trust and creativity. Learners in the future may well be faced with a choice. To attend and graduate from an institution where learning is assessed and consequently certified on the basis of what they can do, what they can create and how they can collaborate in an environment of freely accessible knowledge, where identity is established by unique skills and outcomes of learning (for example assessment tasks may be based on individually tailored continuous monitoring of the development of the unique combination of skills and knowledge of individual students). Or, perhaps employers and state authorities will press for uniformity and certification of learning outcomes based on comparisons among students and rankings, where indeed validation of identity will be done through the methods of CSI.

The future will tell… However, taking into account the defeat of the powerful music industry in trying to impose control over what people do with their music through technological means (which is what Penn State University is hoping to do but for learning rather than music), I would place my bets for a future where technology is enabling, individual and supportive, rather than forensic and policing. After all, the founder of Pirate Bay just got elected for an European Parliament MP

Sandra Romenska


Device Flicking

I’ve often reflected on my teenage daughter’s abilities to multi-task with multiple digital devices and still produce amazing pieces of school work. I frequently come home from work to see her sat on the floor in the living room with the TV on, the laptop on her knees so she can type up her school work, whilst ‘MSNing’ her friends from school (probably about matters I do not want to know about!), updating our dog’s popular Facebook profile and sometimes she even manages to squeeze in a bit of collaboration in an online game through her Nintendo DSi with an old friend from our days in Sheffield all at the same time. Maybe you see similar behaviour with your own children too?

A recent publication from ChildWise (the leading research specialist on children, teenagers and their parents) reports that one in three children told their researchers the possession they could least live without was their computer. The survey of 1,800 children ranging between the ages of 5 and 16, which was undertaken last autumn, found they were spending on average 2.7 hours per day watching television, 1.5 hours on the Internet and 1.3 hours on games consoles.

It was also reported that a casualty of all this screen time has been reading – with only 0.6 hours per day on average and with the number of children reading for pleasure in their own time falling from 80% last year to 75%.

All of this interests me (even if it does not worry me) because in October 2008 the Next Generation Learning initiative was launched to ensure all of England’s school-age children have computer access at home. In January 2009 the Oxford University Press attempted to get boys to enjoy reading with books illustrated with computer- generated images.

I sometimes interrupt my daughter and ask how she copes with all this information, technology and tasks simultaneously – she just stares back at me with a blank expression on her face and says, “It’s natural!”

Is this the latest phase of evolution? Are we developing and promoting a new generation of multi-taskers who will be able to cope with all the stresses and strains of modern employment?

Matthew Wheeler

Keeper of the Media Zoo 

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