Tel Tales

Adventures in Technology Enhanced Learning @ UoP

Author: Stephen Webb

Degree Apprenticeships

Stephen Webb

A couple of years ago the government made it clear that they wanted universities to offer a new type of programme: degree apprenticeships. These programmes would offer students the opportunity to achieve a full bachelors or masters degree as part of their apprenticeship. Apprentices would be employed throughout the programme, but spend part of their time at university – on a day-to-day basis or in blocks, depending on the programme and the requirements of the employer.

There are a number of attractive aspects of degree apprenticeships:

  • Apprentices will gain a degree without needing to pay student fees.
  • Apprentices are employed, so they get paid a wage throughout the course. (So student debt, which we hear so much about, is much less likely to be a problem for those who take a degree apprenticeship.)
  • Apprentices will gain a head start in their chosen profession.
  • Apprentices will acquire the graduate/postgraduate level skills they need for the world of work.
  • Employers can attract – and retain – new talent.
  • Training costs are co-funded by the government and the employer.

In May 2017, the “apprenticeship levy” was introduced to fund apprenticeships. The levy is an 0.5% tax on the wage bill of any employer with a salary cost in excess of £3 million per year. The levy is expected to generate about £3 billion per year – money that can only be spent on approved apprenticeships.

Given the clear attractiveness of these programmes to prospective students it seems certain that universities, in order to stay competitive, will need to offer an increasing range of degree apprenticeships. The University of Portsmouth has responded quickly to this changing environment by appointing several new members of staff to promote and support the development of degree and masters degree apprenticeships.

One challenge facing our new colleagues is the need to develop learning that fits around work commitments – flexible learning modes such as day or block release, and distance or blended learning. Indeed, it seems increasingly likely that online learning (to enable distance or blended learning) is going to play a key role in the development of degree apprenticeships. It won’t be appropriate for all such programmes – the military, for example, would probably prefer paper workbooks to Moodle-based courses! – but for the majority of employers the offer of an online option will be a prerequisite.

So the appointment of three new online course developers to support degree apprenticeships is highly welcome! These OCDs – Andy Taggart, Daren Cooper and Becky Holman are located with the TEL team in Mercantile House. But they’ll be working with colleagues in the faculties to develop exciting new degree apprenticeship programmes. Initial indications are that they are going to be extremely busy!   

A little bit about the new OCDS

Andy Taggart

Andy Taggart

“Hi everyone, my name’s Andy Taggart and am really excited about joining the TEL  team as an online course developer, working on the Degree Apprenticeships. Originally from Liverpool, I live in Southampton and have done so pretty much since graduating from university there in 1983. Though I did work for a year in Brussels where I met my wife (we got together after I helped rescue her from a fire in the school where we were both working).

Before joining the University I worked for many years in the sixth-form sector, first as a teacher of History before moving into eLearning, specifically Moodle course development. In relation to online learning, I am particularly interested in exploring how technology can support less able students especially those groups of students who tend to underperform.  I have worked with many staff over the years, using the interactive features of Moodle, to help improve student attainment and to help students in general learn in an interesting and innovative way. After many years of working with teachers in helping them prepare their students for university – it’s going to be interesting to work on this side of the fence.

As part of my OCD work I am hoping to also explore the game elements in Moodle as a way of making online learning fun, engaging but academically rigorous at the same time.

Aside from the actual use and creation of online courses I am also interested in the underlying pedagogy of online learning – how it impacts on learners, how it compares to other methods of learning and how it can support approaches to teaching and learning such as flipped and blended learning. I am also keen to work with academic staff to create videos that can then be embedded into Moodle courses, past experience shows that students do find short instructional videos to be particularly useful.

Outside of work I’m married, have two daughters, two dogs and my interests range from playing the ukulele, reading (mainly history, politics and Scandinavian crime) to real ale.

I am passionate about the use of technology in education and looking forward to contributing to the development of online teaching and learning for degree apprenticeship academics and students.”

Daren Cooper

Daren Cooper

“Hello all, my name is Daren Cooper and I am looking forward to the challenges ahead working as an Online Course Developer (OCD) for the new apprenticeship degrees.  I am hoping to help create some interesting materials and use some of the skills I have acquired from my time as an OCD in  SSHLS to create attractive interactive content.  Prior to working at the University of Portsmouth I was also a student here and got my degree in Video Production, which I have put to good use since working at the University.  

In the past I have made educational videos and promotional videos for the Faculty of Humanities and have since gone on to produce websites for research projects in various subjects. I’ve worked within education for about 10 years including primary and secondary schools, college and now university.  

I have had a varied career over the years but working in developing online courses has been the job I’ve stuck to the longest (it’s better than bingo calling, the second longest job!). When I am not at work my special powers include carpentry, DIY, video editing and tending the allotment.”

Becky Holman

Becky Holman

“Hi all! My name is Becky Holman and I will be joining the Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) team from October as one of the Online Course Developers (OCDs) focused on the University of Portsmouth’s new Degree Apprenticeships.

I’ve worked at the University of Portsmouth for over 10 years now, starting off as an receptionist and working upwards to the role of Administrator. Although I’ve enjoyed all of the roles I have undertaken over the years I have always had a real interest in digital technology and was always keen to move my career forward into a direction where I could pursue that interest. At the beginning of this year an opportunity arose for me to be seconded into the TEL team as an Online Course Developer. I had great feedback from my time in the role and I enjoyed my secondment so much that I began applying for any OCD role that became available… and now here I am!

I am really excited to be joining the TEL team and am looking forward to helping give students the best online learning experience possible by creating interesting content which is also accessible. I am especially looking forward to experimenting with H5P to achieve this.

When I’m not at work I love to read, work on my garden, play video games and (occasionally) run. I’m married and have one dog, who absolutely rules the roost! When I have time I also like to take part in MOOCs but I would really like to be able to undertake a degree apprenticeship myself in the future.”

We would like to welcome Andy, Daren and Becky to the TEL team and look forward to hearing more from them about degree apprenticeships in the future!

 

The future of FutureLearn

Stephen Webb

FutureLearn – the first UK-led MOOC platform – is now in its fifth year of operation. It was launched in December 2012 by 12 UK universities, led by the Open University, and quickly established itself as a popular venue for people interested in learning online. From personal experience I’d argue that the MOOC offerings on FutureLearn tend to suffer from the same issues as those on similar digital education platforms – teaching can be of variable quality and attrition rates are high – but many people have chosen to study one or more of its courses: at the time of writing 5,758,685 learners (including most members of the TEL team here at Portsmouth) have signed up to FutureLearn. The FutureLearn consortium itself has grown too: it now features 109 partners. The majority of partners are UK universities, but non-UK universities are also on board; furthermore, FutureLearn is unique in this sector by allowing non-university partners such as the British Museum and the European Space Agency to deliver courses on the platform.

So FutureLearn’s growth has been impressive. But can it continue to grow in the way it has over the past four years? Perhaps not.

When it first launched, one of the key selling points of FutureLearn was its promise of free learning: anyone could register on a course and start learning with like-minded people. Students had to pay if they wanted certificates/statements of participation, but access to tests was free as was unlimited access to course content (even after the end of a course). This ‘free’ provision of content is a wonderful notion, but from the start there was a question mark surrounding the financial sustainability of this model.

The creation, delivery and administration of high-quality online learning courses is expensive. Extremely expensive. It came as no surprise recently, then, to learn that FutureLearn are introducing elements of a “freemium” model (see their blog post for more details). For courses starting on or after 6 March 2017 students will still get access to free online courses, but now they’ll have to “upgrade” if they want to get features that were previously free of charge. In particular, if students want access to tests or to access content more than 14 days after the end of the course then they’ll have to stump up between £24 to £69 (depending on the course).

FutureLearn is not the only successful MOOC platform in existence – and it’s not the only one that has changed its terms and conditions. Like FutureLearn, Coursera – a US-led educational technology company offering MOOCs – was founded in 2012; and like FutureLearn it started out with more free features on offer than at any time since. Registering and attending courses on Coursera is free, but an upgraded subscription offers more privileges and features. The income from learners who pay for the extra features is small, because the majority of users are content to use the free service and have slightly restricted access. While this access might be enough to acquire knowledge, it is not sufficient to acquire a Coursera ‘certificate’. And it seems that the students who pay for the extra features are more likely to complete the course on which they enrolled (they may be more motivated because they do not want to waste the money they spent; they may be motivated by the certificate they will get upon successful completion of their course; or they may feel better supported by the extra features they enjoy). Perhaps that is one of the reasons – among other more utilitarian ones such as marketing – that Coursera has managed to attract both academic and private sponsors, who give funding to prospective students following a quick application.

The FutureLearn business model, then, now seems to be the following. A small number of learners purchase the benefits provided by the upgrade; this provides enough income to permit free (but slightly restricted) access for all other learners. In these challenging times for HE, it will be interesting to see whether FutureLearn’s new business model will provide a financially sustainable future for the platform.

 

Online essay-based exams?

Students in some subjects are still required to sit traditional, essay-based, three-hour examinations. Those students are thus required to do something they are increasingly ill-prepared for: write by hand for an extended length of time.

Most people nowadays use a keyboard to write. I recently tried to write a longish letter using a pen, and my hand quickly tired – legibility soon dropped. The same decrease in legibility happens to many students – in some cases to the extent that markers cannot read exam scripts. It’s entirely possible some students fail simply because they cannot write legibly for a long period.

There’s another problem with getting students to write essays by hand: it requires them to use a method of composition with which they might have little familiarity. When someone uses a keyboard to write they are likely to get material on screen quickly and then edit individual words for spelling and whole sentences for meaning. When someone handwrites they have fewer editing options; the writing process instead requires that sentences are thought out in their entirety before pen touches paper.

Wouldn’t it be better to permit students to use a computer – or perhaps even allow them to use their own device – to sit essay-based exams? Students could then concentrate on the content of their answer rather than worry about the legibility of their handwriting; markers would no longer have to worry about trying to decipher illegible scripts.

Moodle is already being used to deliver some exams, but these tend to be MCQ-based. Moodle itself is not an ideal platform for delivering essay-type exams. However, a number of companies are exploring options for conducting highly secure, written exams in an online context. Two options we’ve looked at recently are DigiExam and TestReach. If you are interested in the possibility of delivering online exams, please get in touch the the TEL team (elearn@port.ac.uk).

 

JISC Student Digital Experience Tracker

Stephen Webb

Back in spring 2016, JISC piloted a tool – the JISC Student Digital Experience Tracker – intended to allow institutions to gather evidence from learners about their digital experiences. The motivation behind the Tracker was to enable institutions to make better-informed decisions about the digital environment, to target resources for improving digital provision, and to demonstrate quality enhancement and student engagement to external bodies and to students themselves. Portsmouth was one of 12 universities chosen to deploy the Tracker.

We chose to gain a snapshot of our learners’ digital experiences at Level 4, and many of the findings were in close agreement with the national picture. Students – both here and at the other pilot universities – said they wanted universities to stop sending irrelevant emails and to stop “death by PowerPoint” in lectures.

Students said they wanted universities to offer recorded lectures; to make better use of digital learning environments; to offer more activities online; and to provide access to more computers. Just under three-quarters of students (74.4% at Portsmouth; 72% nationally) believed that when technology is used effectively by teaching staff it enhances their learning experience.

A particularly pleasing result for us was that 97.1% of Portsmouth students found Moodle either very useful or quite useful in supporting their learning.

If you would like to read about the results of the 2016 JISC Tracker pilot in more detail, please contact the TEL team. And be on the lookout for results from a second iteration of the Tracker, which was delivered in February and March of 2017. We hope JISC will allow the Tracker to become an annual event: that way we will begin to understand changes in the student digital experience, at both local and national level, over time.

Image credits: Jisc logo – https://www.jisc.ac.uk