Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Leeds leads the way on HE and online learning events

Solid Online Learning Summit at Leeds University, open debate and discussion and some great people as speakers as well as expertise in the audience. I could only be there for one of the two days but it was worth the trip to Leeds, my second in a week. I like Leeds.

Irrepressible Neil Mosley 

First up, the irrepressible Neil Mosley, a knowledgeable, productive and honest broker of information on online learning in HE. Knows his stuff. He outlined the growth in the UK HE online learning market. I say growth but at 400k, in reality, it is a bit lacklustre, a point also made by both myself and the Paul Backsish. One could conclude that this is little more than a bit of an earner on the side, especially for foreign student income, rather than the strategic execution we see in the US. Taken by surprise by Covid, they seem to be retreating back into the old model and necessary expansion is slight. There is no real strategic intention to reduce costs and scale with online offers, as it is often an attempt to milk the lucrative 'Masters Degree' market.

His characterisation of the ‘partnerships’ market was good:

OPMs (Online Programme Management)

Ex-MOOC platform companies

Short Course Companies

Service Companies (learning design etc)

The whole MOOC movement made lots of mistakes and they’ve now turned into ‘courses’. The disaster that was Futurelearn, an organisation that simply ripped out cash from UK Universities, distracted them from the real task of online learning and collapsed as they had no business expertise. Hiring your CEO from BBC Radio condemned them to a long decline into irrelevance. The OU was meant to open up HE to a wider audience and could have led the charge into online learning but the old boys club took over and has thwarted them at evert turn.

Neil then looked at growth in the numbers and types of courses:



Premium Short Courses




It is worth bringing in a later panel at this point on ‘Micro-credentials’, which must be one of the most disastrous bits of HE marketing ever… such a stupid word, an explicit recognition that what you offer is a trite piece of paper, badge or some such nonsense. It is such a stupid, demeaning and diminished term. The audience knew this but the panel seemed happy with it because it could be ‘translated’ – the worse response to any question on the day. This is what happens when you get people who know nothing about marketing talking about marketing. Not for the first time did the audience show real insights and expertise.

This rose by any other name stinks. A blatant attempt to, yet again, steal market share from those who do skills training well; FE and private providers. HE are hopeless at skills stuff but smell the cash and have been down lobbying the DfE, the panellist from Staffordshire admitted as much. The other panellist, from Wales, seemed to live on EU Erasmus grants, which have, rightly in my view, dried up. I did like the woman from Mexico who was blunt and honest about her very different context. Once again money gets sucked up from actual skills delivery to pretend skills delivery in HE. They can’t do this and justify this immoral move by tagging on the term ‘Lifelong Learning’. It doesn’t wash. HE is NOT in the Lifelong Learning sector, never was and never will be. There was also some baloney about ‘badges’ from a ‘badges’ man who we were told was some sort of lackey in the Royal Household. They will learn the hard way and fail to make money. Paul Bacsish made much the same point. I like Paul – he’s been around the block several times and has a good nose for this waste, which I remember him describing as ‘doomed to succeed’.

Learning Engineering

I enjoyed Aaron Kessler’s talk on Learning Engineering, although I’m not a fan of the term ‘engineering’ here as it is being used analogously. I feel that learning is a wide and messy business and doesn’t always fit neatly into this paradigm. The insistence of using learners in the process of design suffers, I think, from the obvious fact that they don’t know what they don’t know and are often delusional about good learning theory and practice. But the talk was sound, as it stated what is obvious, that process matters, implementation is hard and evaluation harder. The push towards data was also, rightly, emphasised. One again an audience member pointed out that most don’t have the luxury for the complexities of abstract model as they have tight deadlines (great point). Aaron very kindly gave me a copy of the ‘Learning Engineering Toolkit’ book, which has some pretty good stuff. I tackled the same stuff in my ‘Learning Experience Design’ book. We’re all in the same boat here, rowing in the same direction.

Ethics and AI

My contribution was a short talk on Ethics and AI. I made the point that most Ethical AI, is not ethics at all but ‘moralising’. It’s a complex issue diminished when barely disguises activism enters the room. Lots of moral high horses are being ridden into the debate, clouding expertise. The fact that HE focused almost entirely in plagiarism as the moral issue says how far behind we are in our thinking about the use of AI in HE. The problem is not AI but crap assessment. My message was a bit depressing as I now think the UK and EU are way behind on both AI and AI for learning. The US and China are streaking ahead as we wallow in bad regulation. Eric Atwell who teaches AI at Leeds very kindly summed my talk up by agreeing with every last thing I had said! This was gratifying as I find a great deal of good sense comes from practitioners, as opposed to arrivistes who have jumped on the ethical bandwagon. Adam Nosel made some good points about coaching and the need to maintain the human and social elements, as did Andrew Kirkton on some of the nitty gritty issues in HE.

I had breakfast with Bo from Warwick who was doing some great work on podcasting in her institution. It is a subject close to my heart. We are stuck in a traditional paradigm in learning design, ignoring one of the most important mediums of our day. Not to use podcasting in learning is mad, as hundreds of millions listen to learning podcasts every day, of their own volition. We know a lot about how to do these well and Bo was pn point here. Good to see young experts get a voice at this event.

These were merely my impressions written on the train back to Brighton, not an exhaustive summary and even though I disagreed with some, that is the point. Margaret Korosec Jo-Anne Murray, Megan Parsons and the rest of the team did a great job here, encouraging honest, open and sometimes uncomfortable debate. That’s the point. This is about moving forward, learning something new and moving on. To do that we need to look outwards. I’d have loved to have seen some people from FE here as well as private providers (there were some). But this was only the first event. It was a shame I couldn’t stay for the second day, the Tapas meal was fun, Leeds I love, and I met and spoke to some great people. Look forward to the second.

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