Bridges between formal and informal learning

Jogging

I’m considering doing an occasional series based on ed tech developments at the Open University. I’m interested in ones that roughly align with my take on ed tech, are offering practical, often small scale benefits and link to broader developments beyond the OU. So hopefully of interest outside the institution itself.

I was thinking of this when I came across the unofficial OU counselling and forensic psychology site, run by a few of my colleagues at the OU. It’s hosted on Reclaim Hosting (I think on my recommendation, Jim you owe me), so sits outside of the official OU structure. This was partly a practical decision I think (it’s just easier to set up externally) but it also has a symbolic significance – what is interesting about this project is that it sits on the border of the university and the external world, a sort of semi-formal approach.

The site performs a number of functions, but primarily it was set up because the team are developing a new course in this area. Graham Pike said that the ‘our original intention was to find a way of engaging students in the process of creating a course from the start’. So they use the forum to engage with potential and existing students and shape the course accordingly, and they are crowdsourcing images and art for the course, and providing a space for resources that sits outside the formal course. Psychology is a subject in particular that has many everyday resonances, and so providing an open space where even those mot studying the course can gain from it blurs the boundary between the university and ‘out there’ in a useful manner. Further on, the site provides a means of students trialling, and coming in to the course, and vice versa, for those who have completed it to stay connected and informed.

There’s nothing particularly new in any of this – no radical new technology, no (you guessed it) disruption, but it represents a nice example of how we can operate beyond dichotomies. The course will have an existing VLE presence, and much of the material will be traditional OU content. But it is not a choice between this or a wholly student generated curriculum. Similarly technology is not a choice between locked in the VLE or a totally distributed open tech approach. In ed tech there is often a tendency to become frustrated with current practice and advocate for its wholesale removal (and there is an obsession with change for its own sake also). What this project highlights I feel is that small, practical, implementable changes can offer useful routes through the noise. It is this bridging function between new approaches and traditional education in a manner that doesn’t demand the wholesale reformation of either and can be implemented right now, that appeals to me.

What if the US had an OU

Study group meeting in the shade on a Sunday

On Facebook, George Veletsianos asked “What educational innovation do you see as “democratizing” and why?”. Needless to say, I championed open universities. Not just The (UK) Open University, but the model which it first developed and which then got replicated across the world. Africa, Asia and Europe in particular adopted the model of a national, high quality, part-time, distance education university with low or no, entry qualifications. Each of these will have educated thousands of people who were previously excluded from education. It is hard to think of a single innovation in modern higher education that has had such a democratising effect.

While Canada has Athabasca, and TRU, the US is a notable absence in the list however. So much so that OU even tried to launch a US OU in the 1999. It did not go well. Open SUNY is a more recent attempt to fulfill some of this function.

But in the US, distance ed was usually allied to private colleges, offering correspondence tuition. Its reputation is not one of high quality. Similarly, when elearning gained ground, it was the for-profit provider, University of Phoenix, which gained the central position of part-time, online provider, rather than a national university. Much of the function of an open university is fulfilled by community colleges in the US, but these tend to be local based. We can probably think of several reasons why an Open University of the US never arose – the size of the country, decentralised education to states making a national university problematic (Athabasca suffers from this with provincial politics in Canada), the bad reputation of correspondence teaching, and a large for-profit sector that would see a national open university as a threat (and some form of socialism no doubt). And yet other countries have had these limitations, and with its narrative of the american dream, one could argue that an open university that allows someone to work while gaining a degree to improve their career, would be a natural fit.

I wonder if there had been a well recognised and widely respected US Open University, what the impact might have been? As I mentioned previously, I was surprised at how little awareness there was of the OU, even amongst people in the open education field, in the US. Playing ‘what if?’ I think a US OU would have made silicon valley ed tech less given to a year zero mentality. They would firstly be aware that MOOCs were not the ‘first generation of online learning‘ and also aware that everyone else is aware of this too. Also, there is a very healthy community of open universities, and given the prominence of the approach in Asia and Africa, this community is not a western dominated one. Open University type conferences look much more diverse than many north american ed tech ones. Being aware of, and an active participant in this community might have helped ease some of the cultural imperialism accusations against MOOCs. And open universities, although they can be reluctant and slow to adopt technology sometimes, generally have an approach to ed tech which is based on pragmatism and student benefit for the distance learner. This attitude is also absent from much of the ed tech start up rhetoric.

I’m not naive, even in the UK where the OU is well known, we still fall for hype, tech buzz and are guilty of insufficient diversity in ed tech. But it is nonetheless an interesting question I think to consider what the impact of a successful US OU would have had on the evolution of ed tech, both in the US, and as their developments have such a global influence, for all of us. In a parallel university maybe…

An Approach for Ed Tech

Studious

I’ve been involved in a few projects recently that have made me consider what my approach actually is to ed tech. One way of thinking about this is to try the thought experiment of imagining you are in charge of a fund procuring ed tech (or if you prefer, responsible for an ed tech budget at your institution). What would be your principles or criteria be for determining which ones to fund?

Given developments over the past ten years I’ve mixed in a fair bit of criticism into my initial ed tech solutionism, but I think the resulting mix might be getting towards a pragmatic approach to what usefully works. So here’s an attempt at defining my approach:

Treat them like research – have definite research questions or hypotheses. Then you will know whether it has achieved it.

Consider social impacts – where does this tech come from? What will be the impact on students and educators? Technology does not exist in a social vacuum.

Track the data implications – who owns the data, what data does it generate?

Avoid hype – as soon as anyone mentions disruption, revolution, transformation, etc walk out the door. These terms are usually a disguise for not having a clear, testable (and therefore falsifiable) benefit.

Focus on achievable goals within a year – related to the above, if the tech is capable of an improvement then it should be demonstrable within a year. It may be modest at this stage.

Avoid inverse investment scrutiny – ed tech often suffers from an inverse scrutiny problem. If you want to do something small scale and experimental with one class you have to justify every aspect. If you want to invest millions then vague goals and rhetoric are sufficient. Flip this round – small scale experiment should be lightweight and without some of the constraints I’m listing here. Just see what happens. Large scale investment needs to be clear what it is doing and why.

Have a clear audience who will benefit – not some vague utopian dream, or a one off TEDX type anecdote about a whiz kid in a village in a developing country, but a clear benefit for a particular group. And then test whether it is true.

Give educators agency – generally educators like, you know, educating, and tools that help them do that and help their students will receive more enthusiasm. Indeed making educators enthusiastic (again) is often one of the biggest benefits of ed tech. So tech that reduces their role or makes teaching less worthwhile is losing from the start. And on a related note…

Talk in educational terms – students are not customers or data points. Learning is not a transaction. We are not Uberfying education. Ed tech projects should communicate in a language that is meaningful to students and educators.

Address scalability and reproducibility – with lots of investment and attention we can all get an improvement, or a shiny product. Will that effect still be there five years from now and across different students? Caveat to this – if you are targeting a very specific group then it doesn’t need to be applicable to all learners, just not a one off.

Appreciate student diversity – not all learners are the same. What works for some will be despised by others, what is easy for this student will be a barrier to one with a different set of needs, and what is helpful in one place is interfering in another. Which brings me onto the next point –

Avoid technological panacea – a range of tools and approaches will be required for different students, disciplines, functions, etc.

Don’t buy black boxes or alchemy – any solution that basically has a “magic happens here” box in it, means that either they are conning you or that there is stuff happening in there that you need to understand.

There is some overlap in these, and even a bit of contradiction – scalability matters for some projects but less so for small scale investments. But this list would give you a more realistic, impactful focus on ed tech that has tangible benefits I feel.

The bespoke licence

Black and White Gavel in Courtroom - Law Books

There was a bit of a hoo-ha the other day when the popular photography site Unsplash announced they were no longer using the CC0 licence but instead switching to their own one. Creative Commons’ Ryan Merkley wrote a blog post in which he claimed the new licence was revokable. This is a big no-no in open licences – imagine if you’ve used an openly licensed image in a book and then the licence changes – do you withdraw the book, pay a fee? For precisely this reason, CC licences are irrevokable – you can’t change it afterwards. After some twitter to and fro-ing Unsplash said their licence was always irrevokable (to be fair to Ryan their post originally said “we allow Unsplash contributors to stop further distribution of their photo” which sounds pretty much like revokability).

The reason Unsplash have moved away from CC0 is that other sites were effectively creating clones of theirs and then charging as stock images. Their licence now states: “This license does not include the right to compile photos from Unsplash to replicate a similar or competing service.”

So it was a bit of a storm in a teacup. It’s clear that (I think anyway) Unsplash weren’t doing this for nefarious reasons. It wasn’t a case of “now we’ve made our name being open, we’re gonna start charging for this stuff”. They just wanted to clamp down on this form of abuse which was clearly a problem for them. I expect for most people this is one of those debates that matters only to licence nerds. It did make me ponder several things though. Firstly, the confusion arose because this stuff is tricky. Unsplash said they didn’t want to get bogged down in legalese, but we quickly end up there. Rather like a good sports player, Creative Commons make the difficult stuff look simple. But it’s not, it took really smart people like Cathy Casserly and Larry Lessing to make this complicated, boring legal stuff accessible to the rest of us. We’ve been through several phases of interpretations and implications of the CC licences (remember the CC-NC wars?), and a new licence gets in the weeds quickly. For instance, who decides when the Unsplash licence has been breeched? Is that decision legally enforceable? What happens then? What if I disagree with your decision?

New licences cause confusion, remember the ASTM licences? No, no-one else does either. But on top of this, a proliferation of bespoke licences allows a drift away from openness. Using a CC licence is like outsourcing openness – they’re a trusted body who have it at their heart, so where you see it you don’t have to worry about openwashing or a con-trick (I mean people can do dodgy things no doubt, a CC licence doesn’t stop someone behaving immorally, or abusing rivals on Twitter, say). If you’ve got a myriad different licences we end up having to learn the fine print in each.

But to be fair to Unsplash, what do you do if you have a very specific problem which a broad brush CC0 licence does not address? You don’t want to confuse the CC brand by adding on too many variations. My guess is we’ll see more of these bespoke licences as various forms of openness creep their way into different types of practice. The only thing I would say is go bespoke carefully, there are perils there.

The Indisruptables

Puzzle

I’ve often banged on about the way disruption is an obsession which has gone beyond silicon valley now, and Audrey Watters has written about its status as myth. But I wonder why it persists. This was prompted again today by this piece on MOOCs. The article says that, hey, it turns out MOOC learners are professionals and those at university. So much for the democratisation argument then. But this quote really caught my eye:

“MOOCs may not have disrupted the education market, but they are disrupting the labor market.”

You can almost see them running around the office in panic:
“We haven’t disrupted higher education!”
“Well we’ve got to disrupt something for chrissakes, look at the money we’ve spent.”
“The labour market?”
“Ok, yes, we’re disrupting the shit out of that right now!”

Why is disruption _so_ important to achieve (or because it hardly ever actually occurs, to be said to be achieved?). That quote is telling I feel. It comes down to identity and self validation. Like other persistent myths (learning styles, digital natives), people believe them because it helps their own sense of identity. Our identity is framed by a sense of belonging to certain communities, of ‘we-ness’. Those who cling to disruption despite all evidence to the contrary, do so because they have invested in it personally. It becomes a short hand for a bunch of character traits they want to portray: modern, dynamic, charismatic, revolutionary. If we view it like this then we can see why it is so persistent, since any attack on it is a fundamental attack on a self image they have developed. I guess the only way to combat this is to provide a new self image that is more positive, which people can migrate to. By way of this here are some terms you can try substituting for disruption/disrupting:

  • Undermining labour laws
  • Excusing redundancy
  • Wasting money
  • Reinventing an existing product
  • The learning styles of the tech industry
  • Lacking clear goals
  • Inventing a false history

You’ve probably got some of your own too. But viewing it as an identity issue is probably the way to overcome its rather pernicious influence.

For he’s a very principaled fellow

[Reblogging this from a post I was asked to contribute over on the HEA blog, just because I want to reach my blog total for the year]

“Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that.” This was a thought that occurred to me several times while writing and revising my Principal Fellow application. It was something, if I’m honest, I’d put off doing for a while. But when I finally decided to set aside some time for it at the start of this year, it turned out to be a rewarding process.

As a Professor of Educational technology, I work in a field that has seen considerable change over the past 20 years. I sometimes reflect on this on my blog, but I find myself sounding like the old timer, bemoaning when it was all fields (or in my case, hand coded HTML) around here. So the Fellowship application gave me an opportunity to reflect on the changes in my own career, and as a consequence, that of educational technology as a whole.

In 1999 I chaired the Open University’s first major e-learning course. It may seem obvious now that the internet would have a big impact on education, and distance education in particular, but this was not universally recognised back then. “Nobody wants to learn like that” and “You’ll be lucky to get fifty students on that course” were comments I had while preparing it. Well, we ended up with nearly 15,000 students on it (an early example of the type of massive online course that would become popular with MOOCs in 2012). As a consequence the whole structure of the OU and its strategic direction shifted.

From here I became the OU’s first director of a VLE, and also got active in the area of blogging and digital scholarship. More recently my interest has been in the area of open educational resources, leading the OER Hub research team. What I was struck by in writing my proposal was that one can plot a straight line to fit the various points of your career, and it seems like a smooth, inevitable path. But each step is often a mix of chance, opportunity and local conditions.

It was also a good opportunity to reflect on the projects that hadn’t been the success you might have hoped for. These are part of any career I would guess, but particularly so in educational technology. For instance, I developed the first course for the ill-fated UK e-Universities project. While that project itself wasn’t successful, I learnt much from that which would be relevant later in terms of MOOCs, learning design and learning environments.

The constant nature of seeking new research grants, working on new projects, teaching new courses, supervising new PhD students is one of the aspects that makes working in higher education rewarding. But it also means you rarely get an opportunity to reflect on your own career, and how that reflects changes within your discipline. The HEA Fellowship scheme provides some of that space in a manner that is encouraged and recognised, and so I would recommend taking advantage of that opportunity.

Waiting for the ed tech rapture

hieronymus-bosch-007

This piece by Beth Singler argues that much of the language of Artificial Intelligence has religious connotations. Audrey Watters also writes about myths and faith in Silicon Valley and ed tech. These pieces chimed with some thoughts I’d been having about how ed tech futures are pitched. There are some resonances with religious beliefs regarding cataclysm, and salvation I feel. This is not to criticise anyone’s religious beliefs, I should stress, but rather to offer some insight into the psychology of the ed tech futurists.

Central to many religious beliefs is a tale of the apocalypse, and an essential offer of salvation for believers. The Christian rapture is one example, but it re-occurs in different guises in many doctrines, which indicates that it is a meme that appeals in some deep sense to the human psyche. It’s not hard to see why, two very strong desires that are common to (nearly) all of us are a need to belong (identity theory suggests we define who we are by the groups we associate with) and a desire to feel special. And what stronger sense of belonging and feeling special is there to be one of the saved come the end of world? That’s a very powerful offer.

And much of this is hinted at in ed tech futurist visions. The basic premise is that there is some cataclysmic change coming to society and/or education – robots will displace all workers, AI will make educators redundant, there will only be ten global education providers in the future, everyone will become an autodidact, etc – which is pretty much catastrophic for the current model of education. And then comes the offer – by becoming a believer – in my start up, this particular technology, new labour force model, the latest “Uber for education” metaphor, the singularity – then you, and maybe some of your institution (although, you know, you’ll have to accept casualties) can be saved. But it’s a limited offer – there are only so many souls that can be saved, you have to get on board NOW, and belief has to be total (thou shalt have no other tech platform but mine).

Much of the language of ed tech futurists is couched in catastrophic terms: revolution, tsunami, disruption, fundamental change, broken, etc. So, slightly tongue in cheek, I’ve extended that by looking at the Wikipedia five ‘facts’ for the Rapture and translating them for ed tech:

Those who are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not precede those who are dead. Those who have already signed up will have an advantage
The dead in Christ will resurrect first. Having preliminary work underway will help
The living and the resurrected dead will be caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. It’s going to encompass all learning
The rapture will occur during the Parousia. “those who are alive and remain unto the coming (Parousia in greek) of the Lord, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” Insert confluence of factors, such as changing demographics, technology, AI.
The meeting with the lord will be permanent. “And so shall we ever be with the Lord” There’s no going back after this.

I’d like to contrast this ed tech rapture approach with a more pragmatic one. I am a big fan of the Open Science Laboratory at the OU. They do really neat things like the virtual microscope, virtual field trips and live lab demonstrations with interactive elements. All of these really help students, and they’ve done enough research to find what they benefits are, how they can develop them, and what combination with other media works best. They are, in short, useful. No-one pitches ed tech like this as an end of education as we know it. They are focused on students’ needs, have evidence of impact, and are in use now without reference to an imagined future.

If you are at a conference or reading an ed tech article and it begins to feel a bit as if it is over-stretching itself, it’s worth asking if you are being given a ‘rapture’ pitch or a ‘useful’ pitch. I would suggest we’ve had enough of the former and need more of the latter.

PS – after I posted Audrey Watters pointed me to this piece on billionaires buying apocalypse bunkers. So a) this is not me imagining this rhetoric, it must be pretty prominent in their thoughts and b) they’re not even being metaphorical about this apocalypse stuff.

Unenlightenment and incuriosity

Curious Dogs - explored

I’m indebted to Sherri Spelic for introducing me to the term ‘incuriosity’. In her excellent post last year she writes “This concept of being ‘incurious’ fascinates me. ‘Not curious’ means that we feel no need to pose questions about a thing or to wonder about its origins. It’s not so much that we are against the thing, it simply stays off (not even under) our radar”. Incuriosity is defined in the dictionary as “indifferent, unconcerned, incurious, aloof, detached, disinterested mean not showing or feeling interest. indifferent implies neutrality of attitude from lack of inclination, preference, or prejudice”. But there is a cultural angle to it also. Sherri links to this piece talking about incuriosity from white Americans in terms of reparations. In this Patrick Phillips states “one of the main obstacles to racial justice is white incuriosity about the crimes of the past.”

I think it can be broadened out to be viewed as a result of cultural hegemony. I’m reminded of this great piece by Rebecca Solnit, in which she talks about the reaction she received after criticising Lolita. She makes the point that men don’t have to engage in empathy because most books and films feature them in central roles:

It isn’t a fact universally acknowledged that a person who mistakes his opinions for facts may also mistake himself for God. This can happen if he’s been insufficiently exposed to the fact that there are also other people who have other experiences, and that they too were created equal, with certain inalienable rights, and that consciousness thing that is so interesting and troubling is also going on inside their heads. This is a problem straight white men suffer from especially, because the western world has held up a mirror to them for so long… The rest of us get used to the transgendering and cross-racializing of our identities as we invest in protagonists like Ishmael or Dirty Harry or Holden Caulfield. But straight white men don’t, so much.
This paying attention is the foundational act of empathy, of listening, of seeing, of imagining experiences other than one’s own, of getting out of the boundaries of one’s own experience. There’s a currently popular argument that books help us feel empathy, but if they do so they do it by helping us imagine that we are people we are not.”

And this is what leads to incuriosity. White men don’t have to be curious, because they see themselves on screen (and elsewhere) all the time. It’s at the root of why some of them then become so angry when, say, an all female cast remakes Ghostbusters, or Mad Max has a woman as the main action lead, or Star Wars has a black hero, or a cinema hosts women only Wonder Woman screenings. They are being forced to confront their incuriosity, and they resent it. Boy, do they resent it. It is also exacerbated by being English speaking. If English is your first (and usually, only) language then you don’t have to engage with another culture. It all comes to you because English dominates movies and the internet.

The relevance of all this for attitudes to knowledge is that it makes people lazy. Why bother to engage with other cultures, consider other viewpoints? And incuriosity spreads like a virus because people pander to it (“don’t put subtitles on a film!”). It’s like having a pill that means you can eat whatever you want and stay slim, why bother to make the effort to exercise? Incuriosity is fatal to education – it suggests that there is no need to learn anything beyond that which your already know. Much of learning is an uncomfortable process, we often have our accepted beliefs stripped away, we are made to feel vulnerable because we lack knowledge, we have to expose our ignorance in order to address it. And as with the reaction to the film examples above, the incurious do not like to be made to be uncomfortable. Incuriosity spreads then to politics and communities – there is no need to be concerned with the plight or needs of people who are not exactly like you. The degree to which you feel you are representative of everyone is greatly magnified because of the cultural mirror that is held up to you. This lack of empathy solidifies and any challenge to it becomes an attack. Then along comes Trump, the King of Incuriosity…

Unenlightenment & Elitism

james-clarke-205664
(Photo by James Clarke from Unsplash)

I’m giving a talk for Sian Bayne’s group up at Edinburgh this week, exploring the idea of the unenlightenment and open education. I’m using the talk to explore some of the ideas myself, so if you’re going, don’t expect coherence or polish. My main pitch is that we are experiencing a different attitude towards knowledge, experience, education in large parts of the population. This is particularly apparent with the successes of Brexit and Trump, which made this mistrust of expertise a key part of their campaigns. But it isn’t a ‘how did Trump happen?’ talk but rather an exploration of the various cultural phenomena that have give weight to this attitude.

I’ll explore some of those in later posts, but before I do I want to get in a couple of caveats, or rather flags to myself of things to avoid. The first is to avoid any romanticising of the past as some Camelot for intellectuals. There has always been a suspicion and mistrust of experts, and this is actually pretty healthy. One of the key factors in the rise of the unenlightenment is the manner in which experts over-stretch themselves, and think expertise in one area (say in running a tech software company) gives expertise in another (politics, social care, etc). We should be wary of experts when they stray outside of their narrow domain.

The second flag is related – I read The Death of Expertise recently, and while there are good parts in it, I came away with a sense of elitism running through it. Nichols for instance has a chapter bemoaning the safe spaces argument and how students on campus won’t hear contrary views. And there is much complaining of students taking subjects that are not critically challenging. And at this point it starts sounding very elitist, sort of “if only everything was like it used to be, and everyone was as smart as me”. This is not what I am getting at with my talk – not knowing stuff is ok, all of us are ignorant on so many topics. But rather what is different today is a large media portrayal and cultural attitude towards the pursuit of knowledge itself. It is not that someone doesn’t know stuff, but that not knowing is depicted as a more desirable state. And my interest in this is what does it mean for open education in particular, as this is the context within which it operates. It’s an attitude that always exist, but its prevalence alters. It may be that we have hit peak unenlightenment in 2017. But as Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate accord demonstrates, the impact of this attitude can be far reaching for all of us.

Some anecdotes as evidence for the rise in this attitude are:

I’ll explore some of the contributory factors in later posts (eg like disruption), but if it wanders into romanticising the past or being elitist, then please sound the klaxon (politely).

Designing for retention – the ICEBERG model

Last year I worked with some colleagues from the Learning Design team here at the OU on a project focusing on designing for student retention. We of course, have many different aspects in mind when designing a course, but my pitch for this project was that it was worth devoting some time to specifically focusing on how design can influence whether students stay on a course or drop out. When thinking about retention there are, I would suggest, four categories of factors that can impact upon whether a student stays with a course:

1) Design – are there elements in the way that the course is constructed that make it more or less likely that a student will persist?
2) Delivery – when the course is delivered, what support and interventions can influence retention?
3) Personal factors – these can range from whether the student has taken on too much study, changes job, has a shift in personal circumstances, etc
4) Contextual factors – broader context within which the student and course operate within, for instance whether student fees are introduced, if there are increased requirements for this qualification, etc.

The first two factors are the ones most directly under the control of the higher education institution. And in this project, it was just the first one we were focusing on in this particular project (others within the OU are looking at Delivery aspects). So the question was “What can we do during the design of a course to increase the number of students who finish the course?” This is a particular issue for open entry courses, as MOOCs are now discovering.

We conducted research by interviewing course chairs in the Ou where retention had been noteworthy (in either direction), and undertaking literature review across a range of topics, including motivations for learning, MOOC retention data, and analysing our own student’s reasons for withdrawal data. Some of the findings of this might seem fairly obvious, and were part of what most curse teams did anyway, but it’s worth gathering them together and elucidating each clearly I think. My colleague Jitse van Ameijde did some excellent work in gathering all this together into a model. This has the acronym ICEBERG, for seven design elements that can influence retention:
iceberg

  • Integrated – A well-integrated curriculum so it appears as a coherent whole where all the parts work together in a meaningful and cohesive way. This means that there is constructive alignment between learning outcomes, assessments, activities and support materials which all contribute effectively to driving students to pass the module. I like to think of it as the course having a clear narrative and identity.
  • Collaborative – group work is often stressful for students and difficult to successfully negotiate but there is also good evidence that students tend to persist with a course when they form social bonds with other learners. It also aids understanding of concepts, so courses need to create opportunities for collaboration, which can take different forms, while avoiding some of the frustrations these activities can create.
  • Engaging – An engaging curriculum draws students in and keeps them interested and enthusiastic about their learning journey. This can include varying the types of activities students do, so it’s not one long slog, but also deliberately trying to make the course engaging, for example in the first week providing an exercise that helps them see the relevance or excitement in this subject.
  • Balanced – this is mainly with reference to the workload. Our research showed that excessive workload can correlate with increased student withdrawal, but worse was wildly fluctuating workload. Students like to be able to plan and if what is required varies from one week to the next, this undermines their ability to do so (and often their confidence as a result)
  • Economical – too often the solution when designing a course is to give students more. If they were having difficulty with a concept or an activity we provide more explanation. In order to meet the needs of different learners and perspectives, we give more content than is needed. This can lead to a sense of being overwhelmed and so being economical with what is required and how key information is conveyed is useful for distance learners negotiating their pathways.
  • Reflective – reflection allows students to pull concepts together, and also to understand their own development. It’s important to provide space for this and structured reflective activities, and not just assume it happens. It can also be through the use of informal assessment, including quizzes, to help learners reflect on their own learning and any areas they need to focus on.
  • Gradual – one sure way to lose students is to dump them into complexity. It’s a bit like those “learn to draw” books that go circle, circle with triangle, and then full running horse with flowing mane. Nothing makes you think “this isn’t for me” than a very sudden increase in difficult. A well designed course then has gradually exposes students to increasingly complex and challenging materials, tasks and skills development.

We have tips for how to achieve this, but I’ll save that for another time. While the model is especially relevant to distance ed, open courses, I think it’s applicable for any good course design, whether it’s face to face or online. I should stress this is only one aspect, there are related ways of viewing design to achieve different aspects, so it’s not the only consideration in course design. But it should be one consideration, so we recommend that one meeting is given over where Designing for Retention is the sole focus, rather than being subsumed in other design aspects.

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