PhD students share research and encouragement

Ming speaks at PhD Day June 2013

Ming speaks at PhD Day June 2013

Today and tomorrow (24 and 25 June 2013), our PhD students are gathering in Leicester from far and wide to share their research thus far and to encourage each other on the journey. Tony Ratcliffe presented his work remotely via Adobe Connect from Canada. Nada presented her work before she returns to Saudi Arabia to continue field research there. Marion Waite presented her PhD topic on MOOCs and online learning, in her first time joining us in person. Grace, Yan, Brenda, Bernard, and Natalia also presented, some of these in preparation for the annual School of Education PhD presentation day which will happen this Saturday. The recordings from this session are posted here in order of occurrence:

How security management and investigation professionals use online learning environments

Now in the third year, part-time, toward my PhD at the University of Leicester, I am about to embark on my main study. This is likely a good time to give a brief report on the pilot study that I conducted in the latter part of 2012. The purpose was to study how security management and investigation professionals use online learning environments for their work-based learning and continuing professional development. I was also interested in the digital literacy skills that may be possessed or required by these professionals.

There were two phases in the study: a questionnaire followed by personal interviews. I initially posted a request for study participants in 14 discussion groups. Sixty-seven people in 17 different countries completed the questionnaire, and 35 indicated they would participate in an interview. I conducted 10 interviews by Skype or telephone, as well as 1 by email. These interviews involved participants in Canada, the USA, the UK, Lithuania, and South Africa. The response was encouraging, and it permitted me to gain a view of the field and what might be expected in the main study.

My early findings have been that, beyond face-to-face, using the telephone and email were the most common ways to connect with contacts for learning-related questions, although online discussion groups or forums are a popular way to collaborate for problem-solving and learning. However, many more participants tend to read (consume) the resources than actively engage in discussions on a regular basis. The reasons for not being more involved included concerns with sharing publicly and the need to determine the credibility of information posted.

I am preparing a paper about the pilot study that I hope to present in July in Berlin. This report will provide more analysis of the findings. The main study will include observations of online learning activities along with interviews. I hope to complete the thesis by December 2014.

A.E. (Tony) Ratcliffe
PhD Student, Institute of Learning Innovation
University of Leicester

How I became a PhD student at the BDRA

Finding a PhD program in e-learning is not an easy task. In 2009, when I decided to continue my graduate studies, I discovered that while lots of online programs were available, few focused on elearning. At that time, there were about 90 PhD programs in e-learning… in the world. Considering that only in my hometown (Monterrey, Mexico) there are over 80 institutions of higher education, 90 programs didn’t seem much.

I looked at the options, and the PhD offered by the BDRA caught my eye. I liked that the departmental team includes people from all around the world: South Africa, Uruguay, United States, China, and more. I liked that they are involved in lots of e-learning projects (17 back then, 24 now), and I have to admit, I also liked that they are in Leicester, which is a small city but with a great location for travelling around.

And so I emailed the program coordinator. After writing a research proposal, participating in a couple of interviews and fulfilling all the requirements, I finally got in. Being here has been an enriching experience.  I used to consider myself highly technological. I now know that I still have so much to learn! In my eight months here I have joined Twitter and Second Life, I discovered e-readers and OERs, I participated in workshops with government institutions, I learned about methodologies whose existence I wasn’t aware of, and I got a bunch of techno tips! Even more, now I am blogging!! I am looking forward to discovering the next steps in my journey towards the PhD.

— Brenda Padilla

Will vice-chancellors save money through online learning?

In these tough times, vice-chancellors certainly want to economise. More online learning may seem like a good way for universities to save money, but is it really?

Worldwide, interest in new educational media has often focussed on whether they offer real savings: government ministers, civil servants and even teachers ask whether learning will cost less if the new media are deployed (Eicher et al, 1982). A parallel question is whether learners learn as much (or more) using these media as they did with the old.

Research on radio and television yielded answers: costs were lower given large enough audiences (economies of scale); learning through the new was probably as good as learning through the old, though the findings varied widely depending on audience, content and pedagogy (Schramm, 1977). Early research on costs of computer-assisted learning and training (Hawkridge et al. 1988) yielded similar answers, but before the Internet arrived economies of scale were harder to achieve than with broadcasting.

This sort of research has included discussions of methods and models, but without arriving at satisfactory conclusions about the best way to cost these new media. Anyone who sets out to establish the costs of online courses is probably in for a hard time!

First of all, you have to choose the costing model you’ll use. That reminds me of George Bernard Shaw’s little joke: ‘If you were to take all the economists in the world and place them end to end they still wouldn’t reach a conclusion.’ You might want to consider fixed costs (that don’t vary with the numbers of students) and variable costs (that vary with the numbers of students). Capital costs? Recurrent costs? Overheads? Content creation or production costs? Delivery costs? Depreciation? Inflation? Costs to the institution? Costs to the students? And so on.

That well-known author on technology-enhanced learning, Tony Bates, formerly at the Open University and the University of British Columbia, has been analysing the costs over seven years of offering a fully online master’s degree programme from a ‘major research university’. Of particular interest to the University of Leicester, this is a programme using open content.

Of the $2.85m whole life (seven years) costs, he estimates that 24% was planning and development, 9% maintenance, 36% delivery and 31% administration and overheads. But notice that these costs excluded technology, software and infrastructure. There were on average 67 students a year (so there weren’t great economies of scale) and, whilst the programme broke even in year 3, it took until year 7 to recover the early-years’ deficit.

Based on this example, Tony Bates judges that “Open content is not going to lead to major cost savings in online learning. Even without creating new content, someone will have to select, assess and modify open content, or provide some kind of curriculum framework or guide for students studying a subject or topic.”

He suggests that “If we want to bring the costs of online teaching down without sacrificing quality, we need to focus on administration and overheads.”

The latest medium under consideration is the technology of e-books and e-book readers. On the face of it, this technology provides immense cost savings compared with paper and print. ‘Books Vs. E-books: Does One Have to Win?’, published in Newsweek, claims that the average cost of producing a hardback (priced at $26) is $4.05, while the average cost of producing the same as an e-book (priced at $9.99 for a download) is only $0.50. The news item does not, however, offer a basis for these costings.

Should the Beyond Distance Research Alliance apply what has been learned from research (e.g., Rumble, 2001) to costing the newest technologies introduced into online learning? Perhaps, but I suggest that vice-chancellors – and others – may have to wait for an answer to their question. They’ll go on asking.

David Hawkridge


Eicher, J.C., Hawkridge, D., McAnany, E., Mariet, F. and Orivel, F. (1982) The economics of new educational media. Vol. 3. Paris: Unesco.

Hawkridge, D., Newton, W. and Hall, C. (1988) Computers in company training. London, Croom Helm.

Rumble, G. (2001) ‘The costs and costing of networked learning’. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5 (2), 75-96.

Schramm, W. (1977) Big Media, Little Media: Tools and technologies for instruction, Los Angeles: Sage.

Learning transition; purpose, processes and promises

Initiation rites are performed in many societies of the world to mark the passing from one phase of life unto another. Whilst they vary in their purposes, processes and activities, the central objective is the celebration of the end of one phase of life and transition into a new phase. Initiation rites thus acknowledge maturity, development, transformation and change as an ongoing process. Such transition provides the link between discontinuity and continuity, ending and new beginning, the past and the future following prescribed social rules, norms, and conventions. The occasion provides the individuals involved with the necessary instructions, support and guidance to discover and fulfil their personal ambitions and to live purposeful lives.

The rite of adulthood is perhaps the most important of the many sets of initiation rites. In western culture the status of adulthood is characterised by the 18th birthday which is the age at which most young people make the transition from secondary school or college into Higher Education. The event is marked by matriculation ceremonies in some institutions to both welcome and induct new learners into their respective HE community.

Academic discourse on learning transition (from FE to HE) has been the focus of much writing aimed at addressing concerns of learners in terms of adjusting into their new learning environment. Issues which have engaged the attention of most writers include, but are not limited to the factors influencing student retention, the impact of socio-cultural backgrounds on learner transition, student expectation of HE learning environments, information behavior of students preparing for transition, and type of support provided by institutions to help students make successful transition.

The question to be asked is, with the increasing move by most higher educational institutions to “online learning” and “learning across locations”, what new challenges will learner transitions bring and how do we reconceptualise learning support to make learning transition both meaningful and engaging? The IMPALA4T project provides a lot of food for thought.

Samuel Nikoi (12 May 2009)

More than just talking heads: Musings on some facets of online educational content

An article in last week’s issue of TIME magazine sang paeans about the growing trend of making available videos of lectures by academics free and online. Among other things, the article highlighted the pioneering work, inspirational teaching and resultant popularity of academics like Prof Marian Diamond (a neuroanatomist at UC, Berkley) and her lectures which are available online on Academic Earth.

This post will examine the imperatives of these enterprises and look at the possible impact of such initiatives. But first, we should perhaps take a quick detour through the historical growth of mediated teaching and content availability to put these developments in context.

Education by radio has been in use for close to 80 years, particularly in areas of sparse population and paucity of formal institutions providing education, for instance in remote farmsteads in the Australian outback or across America – again in remote, rural settlements or regions where trained instructors were not available to teach specific subjects. Scholarly analyses categorised such interventions as ‘radio instruction’ which supplanted formal means of education delivery

In the UK the OU used radio programmes for the discussion of course materials, alternative viewpoints to those contained in the printed materials, source material for analysis and for performance e.g. dramatization of literature. The OU, in close collaboration with the BBC, of course has a rich history of both radio and television programming and a lot of this is currently accessible via the BBC-OU’s portal.  Academic examination would term this ‘radio education’ as this complemented the formal delivery of education provision.

Instances from the developing world include the Indian government’s experiment with the Countrywide Classroom, initiated in the 1980s, which ran on the national network of India’s state broadcaster for almost 20 years. Depending on where the individual learner was on the educational (and sadly, social and economic) ladder this initiative both supplanted and complemented available formal education.

The Countrywide Classroom now taken the form of three dedicated television channels focussed on higher education – Gyan Darshan run by IGNOU, the technology channel Eklavya and Vyasa channel (the new avatar of the Countrywide Classroom). Further to this, plans for a countrywide high-bandwidth network for interconnecting premier institutions presents new and exciting possibilities for upgrading the quality of higher education. This network, it is claimed, could ‘virtually annihilate distance’ and more importantly kick-start a movement for developing high quality technical content to support university students in any region on-demand.

It is the ‘anywhere’ and ‘on-demand’ – alongside the ‘previously inaccessible’ – features that also underpin newer initiatives like MIT OpenCourseWare. Initiated as a project in 1999, aimed at determining how MIT should position itself in the distance learning / e-learning environment, this became a new model for the dissemination of knowledge and facilitating collaboration among scholars worldwide, while contributing to the ‘shared intellectual commons’ in academia.

Starting with 32 courses in a proof-of-concept pilot in September 2002, the MIT OCW had published over 1800 courses by 2008 and these resources were being put to a range of uses by the over-54-million visitors to the portal divided among educators (17%), students (32%) and self-learners (48%). By making their educational materials openly available, it remains to be seen whether MIT can demonstrate that by giving away such materials it does not threaten the value of an MIT education, or that there may be something in the educational process that cannot be captured by being in class.

However, MIT’s former president Charles Vest maintains that the OCW materials ‘could improve teaching methods, regardless’. As stated on their portal, the OCW does not grant degrees or certificates and neither does it provide access to MIT faculty, nor do materials necessarily reflect the entire content of a course.

It should be also borne in mind that MIT’s OCW and the Open University’s OpenLearn, both of which use existing material from their respective institutions, use only a portion of it and it has even been suggested that the materials have been ‘thinned down for online consumption’.

The main challenge in implementing such initiatives was not faculty resistance, but rather the logistical challenges of determining ownership and obtaining publication permission for the massive amount of IPR items that are embedded in the course materials of MIT’s or the OU’s faculty, in addition to the resources required to convert the material to an online format.

However, most recently both commercial and non-commercial platforms have entered this arena. In March 2008, YouTube launched an education hub called YouTube Edu, dedicated exclusively to videos from over 100 higher education institutions that broadcast through channels they have set up on the site. YouTube’s reasons for positioning itself possibly involves revenue (as the Edu hub has room for one or two advertisements on its pages), social relevance and perhaps is also egged on by the rivalry that YouTube has with iTunes.

Since 2004, over 170 institutions have offered content free to the public on Apple’s iTunes U, which was originally set up as a means for education providers to distribute content exclusively to their own students. The partnership has led to a win-win situation for Apple, with universities deploying a cost-cutting distribution tool, and Apple’s products become must-haves on campus.

Academic Earth – one of 26 companies profiled in BusinessWeek’s feature on ‘America’s Most Promising Social Entrepreneurs’ – was founded with the goal of giving ‘everyone on earth access to a world-class education’. Their aim is to ‘build a user-friendly educational ecosystem’ that gives internet users around the world the ability to easily find, interact with, and learn from full video courses and lectures from the world’s leading scholars. Academic Earth’s attempt to bring the best content together in one place and create an environment in which the content is remarkably easy to use and user contributions (users can ‘award’ lecturers grades!) make existing content increasingly valuable and uniquely tagged for later or new users.

And online content is not limited to academic courses and lectures. (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds and has since then become ever broader in scope, where the conference now hears from the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes. then makes the best talks and performances freely available to the public. The more than 200 talks include the thoughts of pioneering technologists like Sir Tim Berners-Lee and celebrity social crusaders like Bono. An exposition by Prof Sugata Mitra, who some might remember from the Learning Futures Conference 2009, is also featured here. Click here for a futher, blogged discussion on what does and how some users are using the content it provides.  

What then are the pros and cons of such trends?

For institutions the online content attracts prospective students, keeps alumni connected and encourages innovation; and such benefits outweigh concerns about cost, intellectual property and supposed devaluation of elite degrees. With the advent of commercial providers, however, the spectre of the commodification of knowledge – whatever one’s views on it maybe – cannot be far away.

For individuals, if one assumes access to the internet as ubiquitous (which it is not, since only 5.6% of the population in Africa have access to the internet compared to 74.4% in North America), the possibilities of growth in learning online are endless. Knowledge, in its virtual form at least, is free to a few users.

Jai Mukherjee / 22 April 2009

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