Free education part 1: Saylor

I found the 13 minute video about the Saylor Foundation and how they have developed 241 degree-level courses, available free of cost, free of accreditation and largely free of professors very inspiring. Of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating so to get a really good idea of what they do you would need to complete at least one course. However, it is great to see so much effort and expertise going into creating these courses using content that is largely ‘already out there’.

Elements of the Saylor approach that could be applicable to my context

In my role as manager of support, development and training for learning enhancement and specifically teaching and learning using the VLE and TEL in general I see great potential for developing courses along the lines of the Saylor model. These would be individual courses in general and possibly PG cert modules. We already run a synchronous Teaching and Learning Online course a number of times each year with up to 12 participants on each run. However, the asynchronous model is something I have been considering for some time as I believe this would provide a more flexible way of learning to fit round commitments of participants. However, it would be good to maintain something of the social aspect of the synchronous course and this could be achieved with a program of webinars perhaps one every two weeks that would bring current participants together. These would be on very generic TEL topics in order to be relevant to participants at whatever stage of a course they are at. Coupled with this I would encourage blogging and sharing of blogs so that participants could see what others are or have been up to. Discussion forums are tricky in a non synchronous learning environment so I feel I would have to think about their inclusion carefully.

Specific elements that would be useful:

  • Clearly presented and organised content and activities
  • Asynchronous
  • Use of OERs
  • Reduced tutor input
  • Use of eportfolios

Specific elements that might be a problem

  • Asynchronous – social and motivational elements more difficult to manage

Importance of efficiencies

  1. Efficiencies are important in reducing tutor time and in reaching a larger audience. Our current synchronous course is very tutor intensive and aimed at small numbers (12 at a time) which is great for the participant experience but not scalable.
  2. A greater emphasis on peer based learning would be beneficial both in managing the tutor input requirement and in utilising the experience and expertise of the participants. However that is not easily achieved with asynchronous learning.
  3. Use of good quality OER would obviously be a beneficial in reducing production costs although the time needed to find good quality resources and to check them for accuracy and to monitor there relevance and accuracy ongoing must be taken into account. Will time actually be saved? It is obviously difficult to say without knowing what is available.
  4. From a learner’s perspective providing pointers to what is available as OER will hopefully help to equip participants with skills to find and use OER for themselves and possibly to start creating and sharing OER.

Associative perspective on Assessment & Feedback in Mathematics

In my past as a Maths teacher/ lecturer my perspective of assessment was largely associative. (see image below) Learners practice skills in order to acquire the knowledge and skills and later the understanding necessary to progress. The learners are assessed on their ability to perform the skills and apply the knowledge and understanding. Feedback is given on the accuracy of answers, the appropriateness of the application of skills and knowledge. Understanding of concepts is largely assessed through the correct application of skills and knowledge.

I have been a maths ‘teacher’ for some time and would like to think that if I returned to maths education I could and would change my perspective. However, my daughter is now a secondary school maths teacher and through conversation with her I understand that little has changed in the formal assessment of maths in schools. In fact I think that moves away from the associative perspective have been reversed with the removal of coursework elements from the assessment process. On the positive side there seems to be more of an emphasis on self assessment than in the past. My involvement with university level maths leads me to believe that the assessment perspective is largely associative. I have recently been supporting a couple of students studying for 3rd year (out of 4) maths exams and their revision is centred on past papers in honing their skills in following the correct procedures to calculate line integrals etc. This assessment doesn’t assess how mathematical they have become – but how well they can memorise the procedures!


Accessed from

Are our students ready?

ocTEL webinar, week 3: Digital literacies by Helen Beetham

I was sadly very proud that a quote from my blog post was included in Helen’s presentation! This social networking game is still new enough for me that I am allowed to be proud of such things so I hope you will excuse my vanity, dear reader.

The session was intended to be interactive and lived up to expectations with many of the Illuminate tools being employed. This was great although the session had a bit of a frenetic feel to it. I think we are all still learning about the time management of online engagement.

In considering the four examples of student readiness questionnaires from this week’s activities we were invited to think about and respond to a poll on the purpose of the using similar questionnaires on student readiness to learn in a technology based/ online environment. A related issue we might consider is whether such questionnaires are for the benefit of the learner or the teacher. A popular choice of purpose in the poll was that of setting or managing student expectations and participants feeling that this was often the current purpose but not necessarily a worthy one; such a purpose being more for the benefit of the teacher than the learner, perhaps. Another popular choice was that of using the questions to direct students to additional resources available to help them increase their readiness; the benefit here being mainly with the students themselves although obviously with the added benefit for teachers that their students will come better prepared to learn in relation to the course design. I see both of the above options as being of fundamental importance. Student’s need to know what to expect. All learners need to understand the context of a learning situation even though they may then need and be able to push against the limitations of that context. However, offering ways for students to adequately prepare for learning is paramount.

The issue discussed above formed a very small part of the week’s webinar but I hope will have a significant influence on my own practice as a learning technology advisor giving me a new perspective from which to consider supporting the use of learning technology and learning in general.

Some specific related points that I take away are to:

  • consider digital literacy rather than technical competence
  • ask questions to engage learners rather than test and judge them.

The session then presented a number of questions about learners’ preferences and after a couple of these it became clear to me and other’s that we don’t know the answers but could only guess based on personal experience or anecdote.  Helen said that we “Need to be careful about generalizing what learners feel”.

We need to be asking learners. At my institution this could happen through evaluations by asking questions about the students’ learning during the course replacing or in addition to the questions that ask students to judge the teaching!

There is a special interest group looking at this but I need to find out the details. I did pick up a useful link to a pdf in relation to doctoral students.

Much more happened in the webinar but I was too busy to write notes so will only take an impression away! However, below are images of the digital literacies that Helen has developed/ is using and I hope to find out more about this model and other similar models.


Readiness for online learning


The four suggested online readiness questionnaires (as below) cover some common area which I have classified roughly as

  • Computing readiness,
  • Digital literacies,
  • Study skills,
  • Readiness for learning,
  • Learning background and
  • Learning Style.

The words in the image above are those used in the questionnaires and show the common themes. There is another version of this below with ‘capable’ and ‘comfortable’ removed as these are used repetitively in questions.

Penn State University: Online Readiness AssessmentSan Diego Community College: Online Learning Readiness AssessmentIllinois Online Network: Self Evaluation for Potential Online StudentsUniversity of Houston: Test of Online Learning Success

Providing a questionnaire for students at the start of their learning experience is an opportunity to set expectations -asking ‘Do you have…?’ is another way of saying ‘we expect you to…’ for example. I would not expect that the results of these questionaires are used to adapt the learning activities or content presentation but to give advice to students.

I purposely did very badly in all  the questionnaires and was pleased to see that I was offered some advice on my readiness or lack of it. In the case of the San Diego questionnaire there were helpful pointers as to how readiness could be improved whereas in the others the outcome was that just advice that I shouldn’t do an online course which was not particularly useful.

I would like to introduce something like this at our institution as a generic learning readiness questionnaire with lots of resources and advice for students to use to improve their readiness where necessary.


Not minding my own business

I haven’t done a lot of my own blogging since my post ‘A blogging start’ as I have volunteered to be an ocTEL tutor this week and have become fascinated in finding out what others are up to in their blogs. It is fascinating. There is a great range of blogging backgrounds from seasoned bloggers to those who are setting out with a first few tentative steps motivated by their participation in ocTEL (myself included). I have found that reading and commenting on other’s blogs is less of a challenge than writing my own. Its getting past that feeling of a blank piece of paper in front of you needing to be filled – I have always been the same with writing as a mathematician by training. Give me a problem to solve and I will be scribbling furiously in no time and for prolonged periods.

So thanks to those whose blogs I have read and whose blogs have inspired me to think and respond. I hope you don’t mind me minding your business rather than my own!