Online Pivot questions – online completion rates

I’m responding to queries from a number of different routes, so I thought I would post responses to them here also.

This one came via Contact North’s Ask an Expert site.

Question: I am worried about completion rates in online learning – I gather that they are really low. What do we know about completion rates?


It depends on what is meant by online learning. That is sometimes equated with MOOCs, ie free, open courses that are unsupported. Here the completion rate is very low – about 10%. But in this case the learner has no investment in the course (they often sign up and never even attempt one element), and no human tutor or teacher support. For more carefully designed distance education courses where there is active human tutor support (such as we have at the Open University or Athabasca), the completion rate is much higher. Here there can be a number of other factors also. For instance, we operate open entry at the OU, so no entry requirements. This can mean people are not prepared for study and so completion rates are lower than for courses where there is a formal entry. But that is unrelated to the ‘online’ element.

But it does generally require more self-motivation from the learner to learn online, away from the physical cues that prompt learning. It also requires more organization of their time and study environment. But there are lots of things you can advise students to do to help here (eg see these tips

The level of study can also be important – people in the final year of a degree are more motivated to finish for example.

So, yes there are some added complications for the learner when you switch to online delivery, but these can be alleviated to quite some degree by good design, advice and just providing contact. Being online doesn’t necessarily equate to a low completion rate.

2026 – the year of the face to face pivot

This came via Clint Lalonde and a super cool drawing from Amanda Coolidge’s son. It has nothing to do with the post

When the current crisis is over in terms of infection, the social and economic impact will be felt for a long time. One such hangover is likely to be the shift to online for so much of work and interaction. As the cartoon goes “these meetings could’ve been emails all along”. So let’s jump forward then a few years when online is the norm. We can imagine the following:

  • Hip start-ups rediscovering office working – but they won’t call it this of course, it’ll be something new like “cooperative physical co-location”. They’ll rave about the physical water cooler moments around the, erm, water cooler.
  • Unis will offer advice on “physical literacies” with things such as “you can’t always have time to consider in a face to face setting as you do online, so you can gain some thinking time by developing some stalling tactics, such as saying “errrrrm”, “That is a very good question” or “could you elaborate a bit further”
  • Schools will offer advice on safe face to face practice, and guidance to parents on limiting face to face time which can be damaging for children’s brains.
  • A new Californian school consortium called “DeFlipping Education” will set up a number of face to face schools with teachers physically colocated and set to a convenient and regular time frame to help structure students’ learning.
  • Consultants will help unis pivot to face to face by shifting their online courses and how to UnZoom their current provision to comfortable large halls where the students can focus on just the lecturer.

I just want to get in first with the predictions, so I can say “I told you so” later.

The advantage of your own platform in a crisis

I joked with Bryan Mathers that we are living in the action movie version of ed tech, where this kind of thing happens, and he drew me this.

So here’s my Covid-19 conspiracy theory – Jim Groom started it all to demonstrate how useful it is to own your own domain and tools. And also to relaunch DS106 Radio.

Allow me to elaborate. Organisations, particularly higher education ones can be slow to react. Someone commented once that the OU was like the army or the health care system, it took its time but when all those elements aligned it was powerful, robust and effective. The OU, like every other HEI, has been dealing with the very immediate issues of the Covid-19 crisis, and doing it very well. This is where those industrial systems pay off.

However, like many of my fellow academics, I’ve been receiving individual requests to help. This is difficult to manage, but also something we definitely want to do. And this is where having your own platform comes in useful. It is another instance of the principle I outlined with Guerrilla Research, namely that of not needing permission. By having a blog, Twitter and other tools (I have a licence for clickmeeting, but could be Zoom) you can effect some form of Guerrilla Support without needing to seek permission to use official tools, to check server loads, ask for IT set up or removal of existing access limits. You can just do stuff like impromptu drop-in sessions or gather resources, offer advice, etc.

When the OU and other HEIs can focus beyond the immediate pivot and get their responses together it will be better than anything those of us with individual can do. But in the interim, a quick, agile response is facilitated by having your own domain and identity. So, yeah, thanks Jim.

OU sector drop-in: report and next one

When you’re having a nice chat and some Canadian guy gatecrashes

Yesterday I ran the first OU sector drop-in. The aim is to see if we can gather OU expertise and offer support to others who are attempting the online pivot.

I deliberately didn’t record this one because it was a bit trial and error (mainly error on my part) and also I thought people may want to speak freely. But I think I will record later ones for those who can’t make them. This one was general, so people could ask any question, but we decided to theme later ones. I’ve set up a google doc so you can add suggestions for themes, format and useful links if you want:

The next session will be Wednesday 1st April 3-4pm UK time (I think the clocks go forward in the UK this summer, so check time in the handy widget below. At this stage I’m lucky if I know what day it is).

Time converter at

The topic will be Student Support for half an hour and then general questions for half an hour. Same link:

I’ve got these scheduled every Wednesday at the same time until the end of April. Once again, OU colleagues, associate lecturers and students it would be VERY helpful if you could drop in. Reminder though this is not for supporting OU staff, but rather those in other institutions. Hope to see some of you online on Wednesday!

Get ordinary

Photo by Dovile Ramoskaite on Unsplash

One thing the crisis has revealed very starkly is that it is the everyday that we value. It is not the expensive truffles you need now, but toilet roll. It is not the innovative silicon valley entrepreneur we value now but the person stacking shelves in supermarkets. There is a lesson in this for education too.

I’ve seen people suggesting radical new ideas, innovative things to do in teaching and research. Now is not the time for your social distance jetpack idea. The best thing we can do for students, staff and researchers is to try and keep things as everyday and calm as possible. And by everyday I don’t mean ‘carry on giving face to face lectures’, but I do mean, no new fancy tech you’ve always wanted to try. Email lists might be all you need right now.

For the Open University, while some of this can be realised, there is a big struggle to get all the support staff set up at home. This may be unsexy, non-innovative work but it is actually the stuff that matters. For researchers, reassuring them that they won’t lose grants or studentships is more important than suggesting they pivot their research to include a COVID-19 angle. Business near to normal would be the greatest achievement we could realise.

To clarify – I don’t mean we should expect staff and students to carry on as if it is business as normal. Working or studying from home (with children or family around), being ill, or just the general psychological stress of living in a dystopian movie are going to mean people are definitely not going to be productive as normal. What I mean is that institutions and individuals who can, should focus on the mundane elements that will help people retain some sense of normalcy. Payroll is an obvious example, make sure that system is working if everything else goes down. Websites, and access to main systems. If your team has a regular Wednesday morning donut gathering, then replicating this online is more of a priority than ensuring the strategic review is still on track. These boring, everyday things we take for granted are the key to the next few months.

When you live in extraordinary times, the ordinary becomes remarkable. It is time to get ordinary, get beige, get vanilla, get boring.

Open University help for other institutions – drop in sessions


Several people (no, they’re not imaginary) have asked if the OU can make its expertise available to other institutions and educators as they engage in the online pivot. Of course, the immediacy of this shift is very different from designing a purposefully distance ed course with the luxury of time, so some of that expertise may not be appropriate. But some of it will. In addition, I think as the immediate implementation settles down people will start looking more medium to long term. Will the first semester next year be at a distance? Should we build in more distance ed options as part of our contingency planning?

So I’ve press ganged some of my IET colleagues into saying they will join me. I haven’t had time to do a full recruitment, so ALL Open University colleagues please join and share your experience. I’ll see if it gets any traction, if it’s just me and the dog, fair enough, we can play solitaire. If more popular then we may theme later sessions and get in appropriate staff. At the moment they will start general.

I have scheduled them for every Wednesday 3-4pm GMT in clickmeeting, starting Wed 25th March, using the same URL:

This is unofficial I ought to stress, and if an official version comes along, I shall bow out. But in the interest of moving quickly and all that, I thought I’d start here.

Note, it’s not aimed at supporting Open University staff, or students, there definitely are official things for that, which I wouldn’t want to cut across. This is help for those in other institutions: individual educators, ed tech support teams, student support, admin, library staff etc who are now faced with operating at a distance.

Obvious caveat: we may well not have the answers to queries and anything we do say is not official advice.

Hope to see some of you online – we’re winging this, but let’s wing together.

Emotional support in the time of crisis

Amidst the excellent advice and community spirit shown for the online pivot, it has also become apparent that non-specific, non-academic support is going to be valuable. I blogged before that with our GO-GN network we know that emotional support is as valuable as academic support. In a PhD it is as (if not more) important to find people who understand you, and what you are going through as it is to find advice on your chosen methodology.

For students and educators, as we go through this unprecedented global convulsion, this type of emotional support will be more valued. Not because it will help students stay on the course or get good grades, but because we’re people who need to stay rooted in our humanity.

So some things I’ve done, or am in the process of setting up:

  • A WhatsApp group for our GO-GN members, just to chat about anything
  • Weekly online meeting with colleagues
  • A weekly drop in for students

I think it’s key for these drop in sessions to just be there. They don’t have to be about an academic topic. But you may want to have some prompts eg: Things you are doing now you’re at home that you have put off; Tips for keeping children occupied; Memes to make for the online pivot, etc.

A good example is how ALT has changed their home page to a support page, with regular drop-ins planned and Maren has some excellent advice on running a virtual team.

I have also started listening to DS106Radio again. It’s great music, but also it is very comforting to hear Jim Groom broadcasting from his house in Trento, where they are in lockdown. By responding to twitter he creates a small global community and you feel less isolated. Not that everyone should listen to DS106, but starting your own internet radio may be a nice accompaniment to the apocalypse.

The robustness of distance ed

Photo by Jørgen Håland on Unsplash

The online pivot is perhaps better considered as a pivot to distance ed, in that it is focused on delivery and support to students remote from campus. Online is how we will mostly realise it, but it is the distance that is the key factor. For many OU students, in terms of their study (although see below), the next few weeks are as near to business as normal as can be managed, when compared with the disruption students on face to face campuses will encounter.

A long time ago (2007) I wrote an article called “The distance from isolation: Why communities are the logical conclusion in e-learning“. It argued that “the internet is built around key technology design features of openness, robustness and decentralisation. These design features have transformed into social features, which are embodied within the cultural values of the internet. By examining applications that have become popular on the net, the importance of these values is demonstrated.” It was a bit techno-determinist, and sort ‘wow, isn’t the internet great!”. But I was thinking about it last night – the key features of the internet which made it robust also apply to much of distance ed. We can now consider some of these:

  • It is distributed – students are not required to come to a central location, making it more robust if that location (or gathering) is compromised.
  • It is (largely) decentralised – if the students are distributed then the support of those students is decentralised. This is not fully true, as Milton Keynes is the central campus, employing most staff (see risks below). But we have centres in the four nations, plus many staff are already home based, or accustomed to working at home. Support is provided by part time Associate Lecturers who are based all over the country.
  • It is asynchronous – much of the distance ed approach does not rely on specific meetings (at least for students). This asynchronous approach allows much more flexibility (and therefore robustness) when things become disrupted.
  • It is open – this is not necessarily a key factor, but open entry means it is less subject to disruption caused to entry systems (eg schools, exams). Also lots of the content is made open under a CC license so when a crisis hits it can be repurposed easily without issues around rights, or access.
  • It is (already) online – not wholly, but there is a VLE accustomed to handling 1000s of students, online tutorial systems in place, content production system etc. As long as the internet stays good (see below), it is based around a system that is designed to be robust. For instance, our Library building has closed, but most of what it does is already online in serving students, so the impact is lessened compared to a campus library.


This is by no means an official OU risk assessment, but here are some thoughts on potential weaknesses or risks in the distance model in times of crisis:

  • Student’s home situation – the set up for our students is very varied. Many will have a home study set up in place, but some will be using work based access to computers. So if they are sent home they may lose that access.
  • Home disruption – related to the above, it’s fine to have a home set up in normal circumstances, but if your partner or children are suddenly at home full time also, this may disrupt study.
  • Online load – again, while your broadband is okay normally, it may struggle when everyone is at home.
  • Central staff disruption – although many academic staff may have appropriate equipment and be used to working at home, a lot of the central admin staff may not have laptops, and their work is not as easily translated online.
  • Support staff – although a lot of our support is decentralised, there are support teams in call centres who will be affected if they need to work from home.
  • Robustness of systems – our tools might work ok when some people are using them but maybe not when all staff are hitting them.

So we could do better to mitigate these risks, but if we think crises such as the current one may come along in different forms (economic, supply chain, brexit, Trump crises etc.) then considering robustness in the higher education system will be an outcome of the coronavirus situation.

Online Pivot – some Open University resources

As the pivot to online gathers apace, some colleagues have been discussing if we have useful resources at the Open University to help. Lots of other people are doing excellent work online, so I won’t try and collate everything that is out there but rather just focus on OU resources. While we do know a lot about distance & online learning, it’s important to recognise that what is happening now is quite different in nature. This is an emergency, swift response in switching classes to online, which is not the same as a carefully planned 5 year strategy. Our courses take a long time to develop and have the systems in place for production and support. This is not the same as switching your class to Zoom next week.

But having said that, we do have lots of resources that are useful. And most of the OpenLearn content is licensed under a Creative Commons licence (BY-NC-SA), so they can be reused. This isn’t the most liberal licence, but it basically means give attribution, don’t try and sell it and share it under a similar licence. In this situation I don’t think OU lawyers are going to be coming after you if you don’t share it back into OpenLearn. So, it is there to be used and reused. This is different from a lot of the MOOCs I’ve seen and is crucial I think – what this means is that unis and colleges can take the material and adapt it for their staff, which may well be more beneficial. So below are some resources that I hope will be useful. OU colleagues – if you have anything else to add to this list, please drop me a note in the comments.

OpenLearn collection for Online Pivot – the excellent team at OpenLearn kindly pulled together a number of resources that will be useful.

Take your teaching online – a free course, that can be studied any time. About 24 hours total study time, it is badged so you can get a badge or certificate if you want, and available in download formats of Word, PDF, Kindle. It’s included in the above but I wanted to highlight it as it’s probably the key resource.

Being an OU student – your students may need advice on studying full time online also.

OpenLearn YouTube channel – lots of useful educational videos that can be used as resources

OpenLearn iTunes U channel – iTunes U isn’t the thing anymore but there’s still a lot of useful resources on here including podcasts, video, ebooks that can be incorporated into courses.

The Online Educator – FutureLearn MOOC, on things to consider in becoming an online educator. I’ve asked them to keep this open and running rather than fixed date cohorts.

What to do if you suddenly find yourself teaching at a distance – a Wonkhe article from my former colleague Doug Clow. Some very useful tips, and I know it’s Wonkhe, but as Doug worked at the OU for so long, I’m claiming it.

Chris Williams Twitter thread – Chris (an Historian at the OU) has gathered together some excellent advice in this thread

The Digital Scholar – this short course is probably more for the long term, but there may be some useful parts about thinking of online practice

Open ed as the anti-disruption

I keynoted at the Research and Innovation in Distance Education Conference , which has the theme “Examining Disruptive Innovations in Distance Education”. I didn’t actually attend in the end, because I had a (completely normal for this time of year) cough, and didn’t want people panicking if I had a coughing fit on stage. My apologies to anyone who was hoping to see me there (I know, it’d be a select group) and thanks to the organisers for letting me give my keynote remotely.

Now, you’ll know that disruption is not my thing. Initially I was asked to talk about how open ed (in different forms) may be disrupting higher ed, but I chose instead to talk about open ed as an alternative to the disruption narrative. My talk went something like this:

Disruption is not your friend. As I’ve argued on this blog before, disruption is a poor model for education, and leaves a dangerous legacy. But language is important, and merely talking about disruption frames the type of solutions we see as viable. So instead we should look for theories or approaches that promote aspects and values we want to see in higher ed, such as:

  • Cooperation
  • Focused on problems
  • Learner centric
  • Seeking to support educators
  • A better fit with education
  • Emphasise social justice

Open education as alternative. And I proposed open education offers one way of realising these. I then set out a number of aspects of open education, including open universities, OER, MOOCs, OEP, open access publishing, open pedagogy etc. For each of these you can see how they could link to the values above.

Open isn’t enough. Because it’s a time limited talk, I’m presenting a rather uncritical view of open ed, so I do at least acknowledge the issues, including:

  • Cultural imperialism
  • Openwashing
  • Open source communities
  • Neo-liberalism
  • Academic labour

Simply being open isn’t enough, you need to actively try to make it work to realise the values. But addressing these in detail is a separate talk.

The language we use is important What I want people to take away from this one is that terms like disruption carry implicit values and many negative connotations for education. So we should be critical of its use in ed and consider if other models might be better, of which openness might be one, but the main point is that other views are possible.

And lastly, not to be opportunistic and make everything coronavirus related but we are seeing this week how cooperation is important. Disruption is inherently against cooperation and the current crisis demonstrates why it is ultimately a poor model.

Here is my presentation anyway:

And here is a recording of the online presentation: