Confessions of a MOOC Cynic

Photo by Lewis Keegan on Unsplash

I’m back at uni for the new term and delving into the next assessment, which requires us to identify, enter, and evaluate an online learning community. Although the remit refers to undertaking an online short course, the definite steer seems to be to take a MOOC. This appears to be down to the three elements that distinguish a MOOC from the broader group of online courses out there: lower commitment, affordable, and more flexibility.

Last term, when this project was mentioned, we were asked to reflect on what sort of course we might want to take. I was excited at the prospect: the online CELTA course had always been on my bucket list and, in addition, would be certificated. I’ve always been a sucker for an official piece of paper and a recognised qualification as a result of my efforts.

However, further research made it clear that this wouldn’t work: the CELTA course requires full attendance for up to five hours at live sessions across ten weeks. The assessments are rigorous and although the structure for the part-time model clearly schedules these hours around traditional working patterns to accommodate full-time workers, the risk that I would miss one or two classes due to other commitments was too great.

So, sadly, the CELTA was too much of a challenge to take on in addition to my job, studies, and PhD applications, not to mention if I wished to have any time with my family. I then turned to looking at short courses provided by a variety of universities. One requirement of the assessment is that we identify a course that we can use in a professional development capacity. Considering my role and my work with business schools, I considered taking one of the many online executive education courses that unfailingly pop up on my LinkedIn and Facebook page: Imperial College, SOAS, Insead, and any number of business schools of high repute offer these programmes, ideal for the working student.

These courses comprise a few weeks of study, with a commitment of approximately 4 hours a week. Some offer a weekly live session, while others run fully asynchronously. They all have one thing in common, unfortunately: they come at a huge cost, with fees tending to start at about £900 and increasing up to £3,000 or £4,000. Quite simply, these costs are prohibitive for me. Some of them don’t even offer an official certificate.

Which brings me to MOOCs. I’ve always had a complicated relationship with MOOCs, or Massive Online Open Courses. I’ve participated in quite a few over the last few years: a course on online apprenticeships and another on online learning design offered through Future Learn and a course from Open University on Universal Design for Learning which supported my studies last term. I’ve only ever completed one, the Open University course, and I can only assume this is because it was short enough to complete in one sitting. Essentially, as a someone who has always valued learning, I find the MOOC and its proper place in the learning journey problematic.

So, what exactly is my issue with the MOOC? By all appearances, MOOCs provide an openness that aligns with so many other openings that have resulted from digital education: OER, OEP and the Open University. In his study of Ed Tech, Martin Weller refers to MOOCs as ‘an idea waiting to happen” (2020) attesting to its inevitability. Of course, the term ‘open’ in education is problematic and I could write a separate piece arguing both for and against the openness of a MOOC or any other use or abuse of ‘open’ in online learning.

I don’t question the MOOC’s contribution to learning and the wider impact on digital education. It coalesces with all of the pedagogical developments that have fostered the development of online education and have, in turn, been seemingly vindicated: social constructivist forms of learning empowering the learner, democratisation and inclusiveness of learning, and a connectivism creating multiple networks for learners.

And yet, on a personal level, I don’t like them. They feel too informal, too easy to join and so, too easy to leave. They are free which is wonderful for my wallet but feels less like an investment in my education as a result. It would be wrong to say that I have not learned anything from previous MOOCs but at the same time, they feel more like filler and less like substance.

I also question the success of creating online learning communities in the current formation of the MOOC. Previous MOOCs have presented me with forum and Padlet discussions, where we share ideas and applications of what we have learned. I’ve found some benefit in this. Future Learn certainly structures the forum effectively but I can’t say that I feel a sustained sense of belonging to a group when I know that people join and leave on any given day. I compare this to the debates I participate in on my MSc course, where we all work over a sustained period together. It feels as though there has been an investment in creating a strong learning community in the course that has never been replicated in my own experiences on a MOOC, despite the best of intentions. There is a respect and trust that can only be formulated over time and time is no friend to the MOOC.

I’m prepared to be surprised this term. I have created a short list of courses to share with my classmates, and we are feeding back on this. I think I might try a Coursera course this time around, given I have not yet extended my MOOC participation into providers other than Future Learn and OU. It might be useful to consider how different providers approach the MOOC from a pedagogical point of view. Will different interpretations of the MOOC win me over?

Weller, M. (2020). 25 years of ed tech. Athabasca University Press.

Final Thoughts

“Reflection” by be creator is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I began this blog at the start of term in January 2021, which coincided with the second lockdown. In January, I was in a significantly different place to where I am now; we returned to home schooling, this time with less support from my husband due to his new job, I was summoned for jury duty, and my job became significantly more demanding. Despite my reluctance to do so, I considered withdrawing from BOE under the weight of these commitments.

Almost five months later, I’m in a very different place with my work and personal commitments. My son returned to school in early April, I have a new job in the edtech sector, and I’ve managed to (almost) complete the course. I feel as though I’ve become a more strategic learner this term, as well. With more commitments to balance than ever, I have planned my assessments out methodically. I feel more confident as a student than last term.

I’m now considering undertaking my EdD – by distance, of course – and I’m relieved that I decided not to withdraw. The reassurance I received from my SBOSE lecturers when I explained my circumstances certainly impacted on this decision.

Considering all of this, I feel it makes sense to wrap up this course blog with thoughts about persistence. Persistence is defined as a course of action in the face of challenge or opposition. Persistence pertains to all aspects of our lives and COVID has required persistence of us all, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on our circumstances.

In education, we try to instil in students a sense of persistence. At the college, we educated and supported students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. Many students had already persisted to arrive at the college’s front doors. Some of them, despite their efforts and ours, did not attain what they had hoped. Student retention is so central to our measure of success as HEIs that losing students feels like losing an investment, far beyond any monetary measurement.

According to Herbert (2006), online courses experience 10% to 20% higher attrition rates, compared to traditional programmes. Retention remains a key concern for higher education. Institutions with high retention rates can face significant financial impact, concerns over quality and satisfaction, and a desire to understand how to improve. Problematically, the reason why students withdraw may be difficult to identify and so retention strategies are consequently challenging to formulate. Many educators refer to Tinto’s model of retention, but, in looking over this model, I feel it doesn’t accurately reflect the predominant issues that online learners face: for example, family and social pressures.

A more relevant model, by Bean and Metzner (1985) refers to the challenges with retaining nontraditional learners, who represent the bulk of pre-COVID online learners. They emphasise that nontraditional learners typically live off-campus, with family and work commitments, and do not draw their support system from their university and peers but from external sources. Essentially, nontraditional students do not view the institution as their ecosystem in the way traditional students do.

The academic experiences students bring with them to the classroom impacts on their persistence. Most models of retention point out that the learners have a history with education, shaped from childhood, that influences their ability to persevere, to establish self-efficacy and to create positive associations with learning (Tinto, 1987; Bean & Metzner, 1985; Rovai, 2003). My associations with education have been overwhelmingly positive and, I’m convinced that this has acted as a bulwark against any consideration to withdraw.

Despite this, the external factors of January 2021 were difficult to ignore. I had never walked away from a course of study. At the institute, several of our highest performing students withdrew in 2020. Reasons ranged from the stress of COVID, studying in a non-conducive environment, issues with isolation and the threat of furlough along with possible redundancy. Each time a student made that decision, I felt a sense of loss.

Whether that decision was the right one or not was not up to me, but I sympathised with how difficult the decision must have been. For these students, a chartered accountancy qualification represented more than a course of study; it represented a career path, a direction they thought their life would take. What path they take now is anyone’s guess and once they leave our institute, they leave our line of sight. I’d like to think that COVID has allowed some of them to take a new course that will be better for them than the one they had initially followed.

This blog has been an opportunity for me to explore the issues that we face in HE, in supporting students in this turbulent time. I have also used this blog as an opportunity to reflect on my own development on this programme, and how this experience so far has shaped my own professional path.

My new role allows me to work with business schools to shape the direction of online learning, with a global and collaborative dimension. What I learn on this course has served me already in this role. Connecting the personal, professional and academic through this blog has been a highly rewarding experience. In reflecting back on my introductory post, I feel that I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect on my relationship with students, both in my former role and in my new role, with a new level of understanding. As a student myself, I feel I understand some of the challenges they face, but I’m also in a position to address those challenges in my professional role.

Bean, J. P., & Metzner, B. S. (1985). A conceptual model of nontraditional undergraduate student attrition. Review of educational Research55(4), 485-540.

Rovai, A. P. (2003). In search of higher persistence rates in distance education online programs. The Internet and Higher Education6(1), 1-16.

Tinto, V. (1987). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. University of Chicago Press, 5801 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637.

The Power of Feedback

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Discussions around pedagogy tend to focus on assessments and less on feedback. Of course, assessment represents one form of feedback and feedback touches on so many aspects of teaching and learning, that any digital transformation project – like the one at my now-former employer, the accountancy training institute – must keep approaches to feedback central to the discussion.

Feedback transcends the classroom and we find ourselves receiving or giving feedback in various formal and informal ways; in the workplace, at home, and in the wider world. Being a parent entails delivering constant feedback, most of it unwelcome from the recipient. Feedback can be extremely casual and sudden, as would happen in a class discussion where one student might challenge another’s argument. Because feedback happens universally and in so many different ways, we sometimes aren’t even aware that we are giving or receiving feedback.

Feedback processes are contentious. At a former employer, an annual review process required line managers to score employees across their objectives. I strongly disagreed with this process, as I felt that the rubric was unclear and could create inconsistency across teams in how scores were calibrated. As an unexpected consequence, employees became fixated with achieving certain numbers and lost track of the actual objectives along the way.

In the classroom, feedback provides students with a touch point with the instructor, a point in the learning process, where students can check in and establish any course correction necessary, ideally at a point before the summative assessment, which is clearly a form of feedback as well. Defining the art of feedback sparks debate; a seminal study by Hattie & Timperley (2007) highlights how feedback can alternately encourage, discourage or fail to penetrate, depending on the form the feedback takes, with personal feedback being the least effective. Additionally, they point out that the form that feedback takes should be determined by the instructor, based on the classroom climate.

Online instructors face unique challenges in reading the room when there is no room, and particularly where the bulk of delivery occurs asynchronously. This is certainly the case in SBOSE and yet, the instructors consider and execute feedback with consideration. Last term, I received video feedback for my formative assignment and found it a surprisingly enriching compared to the traditional form of written feedback.

It was hard for me to pinpoint why I found this form of feedback so rewarding. Referring to research, I found that I was not alone; students generally prefer video feedback to text and audio feedback because it feels more personalised and offers opportunity to demonstrate particular areas of consideration in an assignment (McCarthy, 2015). Video feedback also increases social presence, creating a human link between instructor and student even when there is no real-time exchange taking place (Thomas, 2017). This is an opportunity to engage with the learner that encompasses academic and non-academic support.

SBOSE required that we both give and receive feedback on group work. I was initially reticent to open myself up to peer review. I have yet to judge how effective I find peer feedback as a recipient; the feedback will be delivered at the end of term. I have found the process of giving peer feedback overwhelmingly helpful in formulating my own thoughts and approaches to work this term.

The process of evaluating peers requires a moment of reflection, where I must extend beyond my initial reaction to whether a particular activity was a success or not, and to pinpoint and explain why I feel the way I do. The justification is much harder to generate and it has forced me to think about how I might have approached my own assignment differently. Observing how my peers have approached the assignment has allowed me to consider emulating their successes and avoiding their pitfalls. Furthermore, I am judging what I consider a success and what I don’t.

At my new employer, a learning technology company, feedback is a central concern of member universities and many of them are experimenting with different ways of communicating with students about their progress. They relate that the form of feedback elicits different reactions from one cohort of students to another. This demonstrates how individualised feedback could be and that there is no exact science in how best to respond to and guide students’ work. Experimentation with methods is yet another way educators can change their approach to teaching online.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of educational research77(1), 81-112.

McCarthy, J. (2015). Evaluating written, audio and video feedback in higher education summative assessment tasks. Issues in Educational Research25(2), 153-169.

Thomas, R. A., West, R. E., & Borup, J. (2017). An analysis of instructor social presence in online text and asynchronous video feedback comments. The Internet and Higher Education33, 61-73.

Van Popta, E., Kral, M., Camp, G., Martens, R. L., & Simons, P. R. J. (2017). Exploring the value of peer feedback in online learning for the provider. Educational Research Review20, 24-34.

Who is the Future Student?

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This past week, the last of our class’ group-led seminars kicked off along with a topic I’ve been anticipating all trimester: what’s next for online education and who is the future student? The group leaders included an interesting paper from Selwyn et al (2020) where social science fiction highlighted the possible unforeseen consequences of adapting technology within education.

The authors created several fictional scenarios at the equally fictional Lakeside High School, set in 2030. These vignettes introduce us to a future in which education is highly automated, whereby teachers no longer have pedagogical agency and students who score higher on an assessment than their analytic profile predicts are branded as cheaters. The authors acknowledge the wild speculation at play; the purpose of these vignettes is to demonstrate the human element of technological adaptation. In other words, technology is a human problem.

While I think it is dangerous to assume too much about the future, COVID has forced everyone in education to consider both our short-term and long-term institutional and sectoral goals. We are now in a position where we must reconsider our investments. Do we continue to commit to upgrading or expanding our physical campus or do we change direction and instead consider upgrading our digital space? If we were determined to use a specific LMS before, do we continue to use that LMS now or do we need something else that fits our new purpose? Should our approach to modality change as well? These are all choices about how to use technology that have a human impact.

It is difficult to determine what the future student will expect or want from institutions but COVID has provided some guidance. Most students have now experienced, on the whole, some form of online learning. While many will be eager to return to campus, there will be some who appreciate the flexibility of learning remotely. I suspect this means that HEIs will need to become much more agile in order to attract and retain these future students, be they next term’s intake or the next decade’s.

On a personal note and as I’ve mentioned before, I could not have envisioned undertaking my MSc at this stage in my life if physical attendance were required. The ability to undertake my qualification on my own terms has created a student (and the accompanying fees) where, even a few years ago, there would not have been one. I’m currently examining online CELTA courses to attend over the summer and even the online delivery option has several versions or structures to suit various student preferences. In many ways, I feel like a discerning shopper, weighing up options and choosing solely based on my individual priorities, (eg, what works for my busy schedule).

Recent discussions around hyflex learning are interesting to me as a possible future direction for higher education. Hyflex learning is defined as hybrid+flexible, or allowing for multi modalities, online and face-to-face, for the same course (Miller, 2021). Although the term first popped up over a decade ago, only recently, has it resurfaced as a contender for the future of university education.

I see the resurgence as two-fold. Neoliberal approaches to HE, whereby students become consumers of education and view their degree as a capital investment, has changed the dynamic between student and university (Houghton, 2019). In 2020, many students felt that the hefty tuition fees did not deliver value for money. Scotland escapes this to a certain extent as undergraduate fees remain publicly funded, however, in most parts of the world, tuition fees have increased dramatically.

In addition to this longer-term shift, COVID highlighted both the inflexibility of HE along with, in some cases, substandard solutions through a wobbly digital pivot. This was an issue at my institute, where employers, not students, pay the fees yet, students complained to employers that the course in its ‘just in time’ form was not sufficient to prepare them for their assessments. Employers in turn have exerted pressure on us. Our learning transformation takes into account both our students and our employers, for this reason.

I’m interested in how hyflex becoming more mainstream as universities think about the future delivery model or models, would impact on pedagogy? In class, we have learned about the ways in which online learning can create a different kind of learner – more autonomous and more self-directed (Palloff & Pratt 2003). We accept the ways in which online learning can improve certain functionalities whilst struggling to replicate others. Would we now have to rethink our approach to learning if we no longer have one experience in the online environment and another face to face? What challenges would instructors face if they are managing two modalities simultaneously? Might it make their lives easier in some ways?

How would students feel about being in one camp or the other? A recent study highlighted a case of hyflex learning in Hong Kong as lockdown was easing but not all students felt comfortable or able to attend the physical classroom (Kohnke & Moorhouse, 2021). Essentially, two modes of study were delivered simultaneously with even synchronous group work undertaken across remote and face to face students. While students appreciated the flexibility of learning options, students felt that the logistics were sometimes distracting and remote students often felt left out of exchanges between instructors and students or amongst peers.

I believe my institute, as well as others, will consider hyflex as a possible way forward as it would allow us to open up our market to rural Scottish students, English students outwith our training locations and even international students whilst retaining employers and students who are deterred by online learning. In the short term, it would please employers and students who are ready to return to the physical classroom as well as those who aren’t. What challenges would we face, though, in creating a group cohesion across these different modalities? Would we please no one in trying to please everyone?

Personally, I enjoy attending the synchronous sessions but I know many of my peers undertake this course without attending class. I enjoy the immediate discussion, something that is impossible to replicate in a forum or padlet. Does this create two streams of students in our class? In some ways, I would say it does and this leads me to wonder if the same is true in a hyflex environment. Do we end up with modal cliques?

This brings me back to the social science fiction vignettes I mentioned at the beginning of this post. When adopting a new technology or practice, the adopters sometimes can’t foresee the impact that this adoption will have long-term. It’s important to consider how a new technological tool or practice might change behaviour and culture as well. Selwyn et al remind us as we move forward with change, believing it will change things one way, we need to consider how it could change things in myriad, unanticipated ways.

Houghton, E. (2019). Becoming a neoliberal subject. Ephemera19(3), 615-626.

Kohnke, L., & Moorhouse, B. L. (2021). Adopting HyFlex in higher education in response to COVID-19: students’ perspectives. Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, 1-14.

Miller, A. N., Sellnow, D. D., & Strawser, M. G. (2021). Pandemic pedagogy challenges and opportunities: instruction communication in remote, HyFlex, and BlendFlex courses. Communication Education70(2), 202-204.

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2003). The virtual student: A profile and guide to working with online learners. John Wiley & Sons.

Selwyn, N., Pangrazio, L., Nemorin, S., & Perrotta, C. (2020). What might the school of 2030 be like? An exercise in social science fiction. Learning, Media and Technology45(1), 90-106.

Why Blogging Matters

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Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert cartoon strip and prolific blogger, wrote: “blogging is like work, but without co-workers thwarting you at every turn.” Adams has identified the affordances of blogging, writing to reach readers but without the parameters of traditional published work.

This blog was started as part of my SBOSE course and so, we do have some parameters: to reflect on online education and supporting online learners both professionally and as students on the course. Looking over my classmates’ blogs, I’ve observed how differently we have each approached the brief. We are operating in a community of practice, debating the same wider issues, but with our distinct personalities and perspectives. Unlike academic writing or even our class discussions, these posts can be conversational, more personal and less bound by academic tone and structure when stating an argument or opinion.

Rather than attempting to encapsulate what I have learned in class in one academic essay, blogging allows me to reflect piecemeal and across a long period of time. Furthermore, as an online learner seeking to support other online learners, it is another method of initiating myself into the use of digital tools for learning firsthand.

Luehmann (2008) noted several benefits for educators in blogging for professional practice. Participants become “knowledge brokers” within the blogosphere, forming connections to other bloggers’ arguments while becoming a springboard for the connections other bloggers make in turn. Bloggers must also negotiate between audiences – both the audience of the self and the public audience – when considering both the content and position of posting. When starting my own blog, I sought inspiration from others. Part of starting a blog is entering this community of bloggers, where debates are constantly circulating around your areas of interest.

Blogging has clear benefits for the online learner as well. A recent study (Pilkington, 2018) highlighted that blogging can encourage active learning in the online classroom, particularly for resistant students or those who are new to and grappling with online learning. Blogging facilitates a scaffolded approach to active learning, allowing learners more freedom of expression than might otherwise be permitted within a traditional writing assessment yet effectively structured enough by topic or prompts to ensure they are guided to meet learning outcomes.

Furthermore, blogging can bolster students’ investment in their course, fostering the characteristics of a successful online learner: motivated, self-disciplined and open-minded (Palloff & Pratt, 2003). By giving students the ability to formulate their own space for discussion, instructors create opportunities for students to develop confidence in their writing, experimenting with tone and structure incrementally.

The point from Pilkington’s (2018) study which resonates most strongly with me, however, is the ability of blogging to take the learner beyond the confines of the classroom or LMS. Online learners (at least, before COVID) are often balancing multiple commitments, including work and family responsibilities. In addition to reflecting on professional practice, blogging represents an opportunity to share the learning journey with family, limiting the compartmentalisation of a distance learner’s life.

Committing to my studies has divided my time, making it difficult to commit time to my son. There is a sense of guilt as a mother, by undertaking something selfish I decided to include him in my blog by asking him to create an image for my bio page. Seeing his own image online and alongside my words made him feel invested in my experience as a student. This gives him some evidence of what I am doing during this time away from him.

While blogging affords new ways of blurring the lines between academic and personal, it also creates new conflicts. Blogging is potentially problematic with regards to professional practice. The institutional issues that are central to my own experiences in education and professional practice do not feel wholly mine to divulge. The topics I choose and the professional context for those topics must be considered against this backdrop.

There are also individual considerations. I am a fairly private person with a limited digital footprint and little inclination to share on social media. This feeling of surveillance that students might experience as they participate in online communities of practice is not unlike a virtual version of Foucault’s panopticon (Waycott et al, 2017), where prisoners are observed by an unknowable, all-seeing watchman. Asking students to reveal thoughts in this forum can instil in them a feeling that their writing is connected to the wider world. This can be extremely empowering, but it can also intimidate students.

Foucault’s Panopticon

When thinking about new ways of reaching online learners, blogs are a potential outlet for creativity, improved communication and a less formal, VLE-free outlet to debate with peers. I’ve started following other bloggers in addition to my classmates, and I appreciate the immediacy of this forum as well as the ability to enter into a community of knowledge brokering. It’s important to recognise that some privacy is sacrificed in order to be part of this community. Blogging supports more free-flowing thought but words should always be shared with consideration and care. This is a valuable lesson for students, professionals and anyone who decides to broadcast their words to an unseeable audience.

Luehmann, A. L. (2008). Using blogging in support of teacher professional identity development: A case study. The Journal of the learning Sciences17(3), 287-337.

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2003). The virtual student: A profile and guide to working with online learners. John Wiley & Sons.

Pilkington, O. A. (2018). Active learning for an online composition classroom: Blogging as an enhancement of online curriculum. Journal of Educational Technology Systems47(2), 213-226.

Waycott, J., Thompson, C., Sheard, J., & Clerehan, R. (2017). A virtual panopticon in the community of practice: Students’ experiences of being visible on social media. The Internet and Higher Education35, 12-20.

The High Stakes of Group Work

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Many years ago, when I undertook my teaching qualification, I incorporated group work into my lesson planning. Discussion and dialogue were central to teaching English but the students in my all boys’ secondary school were generally reluctant to air their views on Langston Hughes or Robert Frost in front of peers. Equally, they struggled to grasp concepts or ideas in isolation.

Group work felt a natural solution to this problem, ensuring that the boys identified, discussed and presented themes in smaller and more personal settings. I still contended with reluctant participants but it did elicit the dialogue that English teachers wish to generate when coming to grips with a new text. I also believed that group work created a more cohesive and collaborative environment: if they were going to suffer by getting up in front of the class and presenting to peers, at least they suffered in solidarity. They had to work together to ensure that they met the brief.

All of this leads me to say that as much as I loved using group work as a teacher, I’ve not yet met a person who will admit to liking group work. This includes myself. I think there is a natural inclination to panic at the thought that your success or failure will be, to a certain extent, out of your hands and reliant on the actions of others.

I believe this is a particularly difficult adjustment for online learners. As Palloff (2003) has stated, successful online learners tend to display high levels of self-efficacy along with an appreciation for the ability to learn flexibly and autonomously. Group work represents the antithesis to all of this; dependence on others is essential and autonomy is impossible.

In SBOSE this term, I worked as part of a group of four to deliver an online unit on supporting the online learner to our peers. Working with my fellow group members was a rewarding experience. We all contributed to the assignment and our different strengths became an asset. I left the project, as stressful as it was, with a sense of being valued by my peers and valuing the part they played in turn.

Still, the problems that arise in group work are difficult to ignore. Key issues include barriers to collaboration, the differing degrees of commitment and contribution of group members as well as issues around group leadership. Conflict between different personalities or approaches can be detrimental. However, this is all part of the process, as we are to understand it: after all, collaboration and the ability to navigate conflict doesn’t end when we leave the classroom. We contend with these issues in the workplace.

In their study of group work in an online environment, Chang and Kang (2016) include these more commonplace group work issues along with factors that are exacerbated in the online environment, including problems with communication and coordination and, more specifically, around the best way to create touchpoints online and asynchronously. Although I feel that our group navigated these issues well, through a series of synchronous meetings and interim communication through Teams, I suspect other online learners have found these aspects of online group work particularly challenging. Online learners are often balancing a host of other commitments which is why they’ve chosen the online environment (Palloff, 2003). Clashing diaries are only one such issue we faced in our group.

Part of the success of the group project is the ability of the instructor to create a project that would be impossible or difficult to reasonably complete alone. This reflects an approach in the wider world of work where collaboration creates recognisable improvements when working towards a specific goal as a team (Haythornthwaite 2006). Group work should not exist for its own sake but as a method that is better than what could otherwise be used as an assessment tool based on the learning outcomes. Our instructors’ assessment rubric clearly stated that our ability to work as a group was as much a part of our grade as the output.

The inclusion of peer review in our final marks mitigated against some of the negative feelings around group work whereby you feel your individual contributions are not recognised and where other members’ lack of commitment can be detrimental to your output. Careful implementation of peer review by instructors can also encourage shy or reluctant participants to demonstrate their individual skills in the process (Chang and Kang 2016).

At my institute, group work has not featured in student assessment, either formative or summative. As a regulated body, we have limited scope in changing our summative assessments in the short term. We are, however, in the midst of reconsidering how we deliver our qualification, including how to improve student social presence and cohesion.

Students on our programme come to us from a variety of organisations. There are clear disadvantages to those students who come from smaller firms where they may be the only trainee versus larger organisations that send whole cohorts of trainees. Students from the larger firms come to class already knowing each other. and tend to mix amongst themselves. This leaves single trainees ‘alone in the cafeteria.’

The isolation single trainees face has been even more significant in lockdown. Working as part of a group could not only bolster collaborative skills that are essential in the workplace; it could also allay the feeling of isolation of these students and break down cliques. Situations where students are forced to work together can be uncomfortable initially, but, in many ways, they create more natural springboards for social cohesion in the classroom, much like the solidary I tried to foster with my secondary school students. Students who struggle to strike up conversation with peers are handed an opportunity to converse out of necessity and with a loose script.

Group work – both as a student and on a personal level – represents disruption of my safe bubble of quietly and individually plugging away on my assignments. On the other hand, it has allowed me to socialise with my peers and to learn more about who they are as well as what strengths they bring to the table. It also allows me to reflect on my own way of working within a group. It may not be a wholly welcome disruption but it has been a positive experience.

Chang, B., & Kang, H. (2016). Challenges facing group work online. Distance Education37(1), 73-88.

Haythornthwaite, C. (2006). Facilitating collaboration in online learning. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks10(1), 7-24.

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2003). The virtual student: A profile and guide to working with online learners. John Wiley & Sons.

Education without Borders

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This has been a week of transition. I’ve now transitioned back from being course leader to student. The experience of leading a unit was challenging but I enjoyed working with my group and I feel as though I learned a lot from the experience. I particularly enjoyed collaborating, putting each of our individual skills into the project. I think I went into the project daunted by working with students like myself, with full-time jobs and working mostly asynchronously. In many ways, using Teams to update each other felt more efficient than my previous experiences in group work in the physical classroom.

This week, I’ve also resigned my position at the Institute and will move onto an academic engagement role at a learning technology company, liaising with partner business schools to evaluate current and proposed online education programmes. I’m excited about going in this direction but I’m also extremely nervous. In preparation for the job, I have been conducting research on the partner universities, their programmes, their ethos, and, of course, their learners.

I’ve already established that one of the biggest changes for me with regards to the student population I’ll be serving, is the international context. In my current organisation, students are largely from Scotland, some from the wider UK and very few from anywhere else. This is because students must secure a job with a UK employer before they can study with us, and very few employers are willing to sponsor international candidates. Although we are delivering and intend to continue delivering online learning, there is no immediate intention to deliver remote learning for an international audience like some of our competitors (ACCA, for example).

In my new role, the universities with whom I’ll work serve a very international community of students and are, in fact, internationally dispersed themselves. Considerations around how to accommodate non-native speakers, students across different time zones and the cultural differences in approach to business and education will pose new challenges.

This week, we are discussing how to reach the hard to reach, starting with the challenge of defining who these ‘hard to reach’ learners are. The post our course leaders included from Stuart Allan, Director of Online Learning at Heriot Watt (2019), which looked at meeting the needs of students in Africa, particularly resonated with me. Issues like lack of access to technology or reliable wifi compound the feeling of isolation these students must feel.

As a student on a course that includes widely dispersed classmates, there is no sense that they are far away and that is a credit to the course design and the lecturers of that course. Having international participants in our course enriches the discussions we have about online learning as they offer fresh perspectives that are sometimes out of the realm of consideration within the bubble of the UK educational system. As an American, who never previously studied in the UK, the British approach to education is not something I have experienced as a student, only as an employee.

This globalisation of student cohorts is also beneficial to business education programmes, given the international context of business and the different cultural and governmental approaches to, for example, HR, business ethics and sustainability. In many ways, the accountancy programme would also be enriched by a more global student cohort for similar reasons and so sometimes our Scottish perspective at the institute feels like we’ve missed a trick.

There are, however, other considerations when including international students in online learning programmes. With online learning, there is the capacity of international students to undertake a UK qualification without leaving their home country. This creates specific challenges for teachers, beyond what Allan describes as purely technology-driven.

A case study of Russian students undertaking a UK-based online MBA course provides insight into the distinctive issues these students face (Ramanau, 2017). Some of the barriers to learning include an inability to contextualise course content to their own work environment and difficulty to adjusting to a more practice-oriented style of learning.

In another case study of Chinese students enrolled on an American online MBA programme, issues included the barriers to participation created by time differences, language barriers and an adjustment to case-based instruction that is a central component of many Western MBA programmes (Liu & Magjuka, 2011). In both studies, students remained in their home country to study. How would these factors change – or would they – should the students undertake a fully immersive experience of studying and living in the UK or US? Obviously issues like time differences and access to stable wifi become less relevant but culture shock and feelings of isolation may be amplified.

I would identify these students as hard to reach for instructors. Cultural adjustments to a different teaching style perhaps create the biggest challenge for educators, because there are limits to what the teacher can modify. On the other hand, online learning offers educators opportunities to adjust the way learners access information and demonstrate comprehension through assessment. Much like accessibility, designing courses for international learners, can improve the learning journey for all students.

Students who struggle with language barriers or who are not used to speaking in class have access to other forms of participating in debate, like online forums. Liu & Magjuka (2011) point out that online forums are often unknown to Chinese learners and they struggle with the rules of engagement. This is where instructor support and scaffolding plays a key role. Ensuring that students feel part of the dialogue in a way that helps to build confidence can mitigate against isolation and feeling disconnected, both physically and emotionally, from peers.

I’m looking forward to these new considerations with regards to online learners. Reaching international learners online poses different challenges but also offers up new opportunities to bridge the physical distance. Ensuring that these truly distant students do not feel segregated from their peers is essential to success in a globalised online classroom.

Allan, S. (2019, July). Are digital technologies complicit in acts of exclusion and marginalisation? Open plan learning.

Liu, X., & Magjuka, R. J. (2011). Learning in cross-cultural online MBA courses: Perceptions of Chinese students. In Cases on globalized and culturally appropriate e-learning: Challenges and solutions (pp. 168-186). IGI Global.

Ramanau, R. (2017). studying on an online mba course with a UK business school: academic acculturation, global and local perspectives. In INTED2017 Proceedings (pp. 1829-1838). IATED.

Digital for Beginners…and We’re All Beginners

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The idea of digital tribalism – the distinction between digital native and digital immigrant – is something I’ve blindly accepted but not actively considered. Given digital literacy is central to considerations of student support online, I thought I’d investigate the origins of the terminology that surrounds it.

Marc Prensky, who coined the term digital native in 2001, wrote as recently as 2010 on the subject, in which he instructs teachers how to teach these very distinct set of learners. Much of what he has to say aligns with theories of online learning we’ve discussed in our class: students as self-directed, teachers as facilitators, students as co-creators of knowledge (Prensky, 2010). My point here being, even concepts like digital native that I believe are harmful and misleading, can come from cogent arguments. Perhaps, that’s why we buy into them.

I have been guilty of assuming that I will struggle with new technologies more than my younger counterparts simply because I am generationally pre-internet. Entering a digital classroom as a student and as a practitioner simultaneously in the last year, I’ve observed the binary opposition of native vs immigrant as more than misleading; it is damaging.

There have been several occasions on SBOSE this term where I or my peers have struggled with the technology used. In one synchronous session, during group work, we spent more time grappling with how to use a Miro board than we did with the activity itself. It was both frustrating and equalising. I was surprised that the lecturers in our group were unfamiliar with Miro but this highlighted a preference for certain online tools over others, more than any overarching issue with technology itself.

Which leads me to discuss fear of change, which includes new methods of doing something. Being a student on SBOSE this term has challenged me to try new methods of learning and collaborating with peers. Working on our team module and grappling with the Moodle site is one such example of frustration turning into empowerment.

When I consider the use of native in any context, there is always an unmovable goalpost. If you were never a native before, you cannot suddenly become one. In other words, no matter what you do, you will never be part of the club. This idea seems contrary to the very foundation of education, where the objective is to finish in a different, better place to where you started.

I first heard the term digital literacy when I worked at the college. We used this term to identify support needs for learners, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds who may have had limited exposure to technology. Our definition of competency aligned more with life circumstance and previous experience with digital technology rather than any generational analysis.

Digital literacy was also deeply embedded in lifelong learning programmes. In my role and in conjunction with lecturers, I developed a digital literacy training programme for facilities staff at sporting venues across Scotland. This involved guiding learners through how to log onto a computer, how to access email, and how to save and modify documents. This was the more traditional definition of DL that revolves around operational elements of using a computer (Burton et al, 2015). The internet and our increased reliance on digital tools and technologies has created a continuously evolving and more complex interpretation of digital literacy today.

In my current role, students come to our institute to train as accountants straight from university. Most of them are in their early 20s, from middle to high socioeconomic backgrounds, and with generally high levels of previous exposure to technology. This, however, does not predispose them to mastering the online classroom. Our assumptions that it does only creates a distance between teacher and student. Many of the lecturers and educational professionals at my institute struggled with this digital transition but it would be wrong to see it as some generational divide. Assuming that we alone grappled with technology would create a missed opportunity to empathise with students in this new world.

A key assumption many educators make is what Burton (2015) calls the danger of homogenisation. Our students come to us, with seemingly many similar characteristics – their interest, for one, in becoming accountants – and we make assumptions about how far these similarities stretch.

The need to distinguish students’ comfort with digital tools for socialisation from digital tools for learning is also key to ensuring that we are realistic in our assessment of our students’ capabilities. I think there is a particular danger with our assumptions that young people are digital natives because they too are aware that they are meant to play out this role. It creates an environment where a student might be reluctant to admit they need help because of our own expectations of them or their own perception of our expectations.

Recalibrating our expectations is the first step but, beyond this, how do we identify students who are struggling with digital literacy? Prior et al (2016) identified the essential link between the self-efficacy of online learners to both their attitudes and their level of digital literacy. Students bring to the classroom entrenched attitudes regarding online learning. This has become further complicated by the sharp and significant pilgrimage of learners to the online classroom last year. These experiences will shape their future attitudes to online learning so it is vital that we do not leave anyone behind.

Many educators within HE have spent this past year fire fighting on all fronts. My group project to deliver a course on student wellbeing drove home to me the pressures educators are facing in trying to assist students who are also struggling on multiple fronts. At my institute, we primarily rely on formative assessment and mock exams to tease out problems, but we need to look at students beyond performance measures.

It is time consuming and challenging but I think we need to understand online learners as soon as possible. Inductions offer an opportunity to observe how students interact with new tools and platforms and each other: are those who participate less reluctant and disengaged or are they struggling with the platform?

I think there is an overlap in the skills an online instructor needs to support students who struggle with digital literacy and students who are struggling with mental health and wellbeing issues.

As one of my classmates aptly explained on our padlet discussion board, she assisted a student who was struggling with her coursework as a non-native English speaker. The takeaway from the student, in addition to feeling supported, was being noticed and understood as an individual. Despite all of the challenges we face at the moment, it is vital that we notice our students, and the cues they send us. The digital pivot put us all in a difficult and challenging position but it creates an opportunity to work in what Prensky (2010) aptly described as educational partnership, where the teacher and the student can work together to create the ideal learning environment.

Burton L.J., Summers J., Lawrence J., Noble K., Gibbings P. (2015) Digital Literacy in Higher Education: The Rhetoric and the Reality. In: Harmes M.K., Huijser H., Danaher P.A. (eds) Myths in Education, Learning and Teaching. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Prensky, M. R. (2010). Teaching digital natives: Partnering for real learning. Corwin press.

Prior, D. D., Mazanov, J., Meacheam, D., Heaslip, G., & Hanson, J. (2016). Attitude, digital literacy and self efficacy: Flow-on effects for online learning behavior. The Internet and Higher Education29, 91-97.

Arbiters of Information

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This week, I discovered an essay by Eli M. Noam (1996) entitled Electronics and the Dim Future of the University. Although not the most heartening read for anyone in HE, Noam’s vision of technology’s impact on universities is nevertheless insightful . He presents the traditional university model – a model that remained undisrupted for centuries – as creator, curator and transmitter of information. Distance learning, he predicted, would disrupt all three of these roles. Noam’s essay reflects on what happens to the arbiters of information when the gateway to information snaps open.

Information is the established currency of HE: its creation through research and specialisation, its curation through libraries and rigorous publication standards, and its transmission through teaching. I’ve already discussed OER’s impact on the university as an information creator and curator in a previous post. Although I think there’s still plenty to be said on the subject of OER and information, I’ll focus on the third role Noam (1996) has ascribed to the university; as information transmitters, or educators.

Despite the dark implications of Noam’s (1996) title, his own thoughts on distance education seem less dim and more opportunity-driven. Noam rightly predicted that technology would impinge on education, but with its destruction would come reinvention.

For Noam (1996), digital learning forces an extension of teaching beyond mere information transmission to what he thinks it should do: foster active learning, coach and mentor, facilitate collaboration and guide learners to identify and share their own information sources. In other words, the kind of learning we do in SBOSE, which is miles away from the more passive learning I experienced as a student in the past. Learning online is as much about learning new approaches to transmitting information and testing those modalities to establish what works best for you as a learner.

As an example, this course introduced the padlet as a learning tool last term and continued to incorporate it throughout this term. For our assessment last term, the padlet acted as a journal of our development as students and educators but in mind-map form rather than traditional, text-based form. I found the padlet exercise challenging because I was not used to approaching the organisation of ideas in that way, as a text-based learner. Using the padlet and becoming more comfortable with navigating it to match my own preferences, through the collection of artefacts, made me feel empowered and I now use padlets regularly as an alternative way of laying out my thoughts.

Noam (1996) doesn’t think this new approach to teaching happens because of technology but technology facilitates this approach to teaching. Whilst not everything Noam predicted back in 1996 has transpired or appears remotely ready to, his points about new conceptions of teaching and the accompanying re-conception of a campus definitely resonate with me in 2021.

Universities take organisational approaches to many things but they are essentially comprised of individuals. Each educator has their own, well- embedded, ideas of what it means to teach and learn. 2020 was a pivotal year in that it took most educators down the digital path, with varying degrees of reluctance or resolution. The degree often depended on the teacher’s pre-existing perception of online learning.

Gonzalez (2012) identified five very different ways in which teachers perceive online learning. These different conceptions influence the degree of embeddedness of learning technology in the classroom: from viewing learning technology as merely a medium of information transmission (something akin to what Noam (1996) identifies as the original role of the university), to occasional communication, to online discussion, to, in its most developed stage, giving students the tools to collaboratively build knowledge through online learning (the ‘future’ university à la Noam).

Gonzalez’s (2012) shades of online offers up a pathway for teachers where they can incrementally embed online learning within their comfort zone. COVID dragged educators from Category A all the way up to Category D or E in an instant. I suspect, when we return to a degree of normality, some educators will return to their safe place with regards to online learning -which will fall on various points along Gonzalez’s spectrum.

The decision to throw away the rule book and start a new one can be uncomfortable. Incorporating learning technology in more significant ways requires educators to rethink what they do and how they do it. Some teachers perceive this as regressive, on par with becoming a novice where you were once an expert. It can change the dynamics within departments and disciplines and it forces universities to reposition, reconsider and repurpose, just as Noam anticipated.

In our institute, early digital adopters now find themselves in positions of power regardless of how junior they might have been pre-COVID. They have become natural leaders in a time of reflection and soul-searching within our organisation as we implement a Digital Transformation project. These shifts in power have changed the dynamic in our organisation. It is uncomfortable but it is also offering up new possibilities.

In the accounting classroom, students have traditionally been passive learners, listening to us lecture, taking notes, undertaking formative assessments and preparing for their exams. We are preparing to take a new approach to teaching, both in the classroom and through online learning, that will allow our students to become more self-directed. Essentially, we are moving along Gonzalez’s (2012) spectrum in a tight timeframe. In the post-COVID world, I suspect the learners will adapt to these changes well. It is the lecturers who may struggle, to varying degrees, with revising their own ideas about their roles as teachers.

González, C. (2012). The relationship between approaches to teaching, approaches to e-teaching and perceptions of the teaching situation in relation to e-learning among higher education teachers. Instructional Science40(6), 975-998.

Noam, E. M. (1995). Electronics and the dim future of the university. Science270(5234), 247-249.

Student Expectations

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When I was student many years ago, I remember filling out an evaluation form in the final class. We were invited to comment on our teacher, our programme, the way assessments were delivered, all sorts of things. However, I never remember being asked if I felt the course had successfully nurtured social presence, a sense of community or social cohesion. Nor was I asked if I liked face to face teaching but then, asking me if I was satisfied with the mode of delivery would have been like asking me if I was satisfied with sitting at a desk. What was the alternative?

Several studies published just before COVID identified strongly polarised and entrenched attitudes to online learning that can set the scene for students’ experiences. Student satisfaction is directly tied to their perceptions of online learning as well as their pre-existing level of comfort with the online environment (Landrum et al, 2020; Wei & Chou, 2018; Alqurashi, 2018).

The most interesting question universities will now be asking is how forcing the majority of learners online during lockdown has impacted on their perceptions of online learning for the long-term. Traditionally, students have seen online learning as inferior to face-to- face teaching. Even though plenty of students site the convenience and autonomy of online learning as positives, online learning more widely is cast as the poorer relation to the traditional classroom, plan B.

For those who were unconvinced before COVID, a poor online experience this past year will most likely confirm their previous opinions. If learners have had a positive online experience this year, it may make them more favourable to online learning in future. Landrum et al (2020) point out that students who have learned online previously will be more willing to undertake online learning again. Should we try to ‘convert’ everyone to online learning? Perhaps not, yet the feedback from naysayers should be equally incorporated into any delivery model moving forward.

Can we make learners like online learning if they don’t? How do we make them comfortable in an online environment if they come to it unwillingly, as so many students have this last year. At my institute, we conducted a survey of students in November.

The survey found that most students were pleased with the quality of teaching, including all teaching conducted since COVID changed our delivery model in May. Yet, the majority – 65% – still wanted to return to the physical classroom when possible. In many ways, our survey didn’t ask our students enough: why did they want to go back? what do they feel is missing online?

My anecdotal experiences with students give insight: they talk about how isolated they feel, how they have no peer support to draw on and in the classroom they feel anonymous. This is freeing for the shy students as they can ask questions without ‘being in the spotlight.’ Yet, the disadvantages are hard to ignore.

As touched on earlier in this blog, I came to the online classroom expecting to be in an online classroom. There is no gap between expectation and reality for me. In some ways, BOE and SBOSE have exceeded my expectations: for example, I did not expect to find a significant level of social presence or cohesion on the course. Through group work and synchronous sessions that heavily incorporate discussion, I have experienced more cohesion that I could have anticipated. I always attend synchronous sessions when I can and so, I suspect my sense of cohesion is stronger than some of my peers, who miss the live sessions altogether.

So, SBOSE students know what they are getting themselves into, to a certain extent. However, universities must find it more challenging when considering all of the courses that were billed as face to face and are now online. Certain disciplines will find this particularly challenging.

Moving forward, all HEIs will need to adapt or die. The most successful institutions will be those that include students in the process, opening up deliberation, clearly stating what student feedback will achieve, and communicating about what the future means. Students see their education as an investment and this year often fell short of what they anticipated. Yet, the future holds an opportunity to do things better. Ensuring they are asked what they want is the only way to create an experience that is fit for purpose. This should be holistic and feed into all models of delivery, old and new.

When I think back to my own student surveys, I don’t recall having any communication regarding how my and other students’ feedback would be used. Did anyone use the information we gave them? Did they even see it as information or just a process in a series of processes?

If COVID has created shifting expectations in students about online learning, it will be vital to know. Institutions like mine are looking at student feedback and incorporating student opinion, now more than ever. Doing so gives students a sense of agency in their own learning experience, regardless of whether it is face to face or online or some blend of the two.

In conclusion, and in consideration of my own experiences in online learning as a student this year I think HEIs need to do the following when incorporating student feedback:

  1. Identify what worked
  2. Address what didn’t work
  3. Ensure students feel ready to learn online, including considerations around digital literacy, accessibility to technology, the success factors for online learners as identified by Simpson (2014) and others: self-efficacy, motivation and time management
  4. Include students in the process, every step of the way
  5. Be prepared to change, even where the model is entrenched
  6. Don’t forget students varying perceptions of social cohesion: some online students are comfortable with working autonomously but others need a social network of peers
  7. Be honest and open with students: this includes telling them what you can do and what you can’t, how their feedback will be used and what role student data will play, if any

I’d be interested to hear how your institution gathers student feedback and how this feedback will be used moving forward.

Alqurashi, E. (2019). Predicting student satisfaction and perceived learning within online learning environments. Distance Education40(1), 133-148.

Landrum, B., Bannister, J., Garza, G., & Rhame, S. (2020). A class of one: Students’ satisfaction with online learning. Journal of Education for Business, 1-7.

Simpson, O. (2018). Supporting students in online, open and distance learning. Routledge.

Wei, H. C., & Chou, C. (2020). Online learning performance and satisfaction: do perceptions and readiness matter?. Distance Education41(1), 48-69.