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Talking MOOCs

November 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Recently interest in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) has moved from the learning technology community into the popular press. Some of the coverage has been almost apocalyptic in tone.

This post, the first of a series of three on this topic, aims to provide an introduction to MOOCs. The next two posts will cover (i) some of the pedagogic aspects and (ii) some of the business models which have been suggested as ways to exploit the MOOC phenomenon.

The overarching aim of this short series is to provide some resources on the MOOCs, to explore some questions about them and to invite some comments about their potential impact .

A list of current and recent MOOCs can be found here. A more detailed survey of the development of MOOCs thus far can be accessed on this link

What are MOOCS?  

The term MOOCs emerged in 2007.  One of the MOOC pioneers, George Siemens talks about the genesis and development of the MOOC on this video where Martin Weller interviews George Siemens and Dave Cormier (originator of the term MOOC).  Building on Connectivist principles developed by Stephen Downes, early MOOCs challenged universities’ traditional control over curriculum, certification, tuition fees and access.

A great paper by Sir John Daniel draws an important distinction between these early cMOOCs, which continue, and those which have been the focus of recent press attention, which he calls xMOOCs, such as those provided by Cousera, Udacity and edX (though there are significant differences between the pedagogic and economic models each of these seeks to develop). It is

  • the vast number of student enrolments,
  • considerable investment of venture capital,
  • global publishing conglomerate interest
  •  Ivy League and Russell Group University participation

in these xMOOCs which has grown media interest and led some to argue that, largely due to MOOCs, Higher Education is on the verge of a profound transformation (the-most-important-education-technology-in-200-years/, ) whilst others are more sceptical.

The next post will look in more detail at how both types of MOOC (C and X) work and some of the pedagogic models which underpin them. The final post will explore their viability as business models.

If you have any thoughts or comments on MOOCs, please share them below.

A Successful Student Experience: Implications for Academic Performance.

May 10, 2012 1 comment

This event was organised by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education

Tuesday 8th May

Queen Mary’s University of London

Judging Teaching Excellence – A Student Achievements Awards perspective.

The day started with a presentation from Craig Best, Vice-President Academic Representation from Brunel University. Craig outlined the student led teaching awards which have been introduced at Brunel University following on from the ‘Taught, Not Lectured’ campaign which the student’s union introduced. One result of the campaign was to introduce a range of awards chosen and awarded by the student body which include: Inspirational teacher, Supervisor of the year, Personal tutor of the year, Administrator of the year, feedback of the year and so on. The student representatives, in association with the student union, drew up the criteria against which the awards were agreed and this had the additional benefit of encouraging the student body to identify those characteristics of good teaching practice. Although there are issues around getting Union agreement this was an approach which other institutions might wish to emulate.


Professionalising Teaching and Supporting Learning.

Helen Thomas. Head of Teacher Excellence, Higher Education Academy (HEA).

Helen began her presentation by considering what constitutes excellence in teaching, how it might be measured and whether recent developments such as the CETLs (Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning) and the NTFS (National Teaching Fellows Scheme) have had a significant impact on raising the standards in teaching and Learning in UK Higher Education. She outlined the HEA’s professional standards framework (PSF) and noted that a recent Select Committee report had argued that all staff teaching in UK Higher Education should have a teaching qualification. This should be institutionally supported and/or individuals may choose to map themselves against the PSF. She also suggested that teaching excellence might be linked to promotion (in addition to research excellence) and that some universities have already implemented the PSF as a tool for appraisal and promotion.  

Measuring and Comparing Teaching Quality –

Graham Gibbs. University of Winchester and HEA Consultant.

Graham gave a challenging presentation drawn from his Dimensions of Quality report published in 2010 which highlights a number of issues about the measurement, impact and myths surrounding efforts to raise the standards of learning and teaching. More detail on this report can be found on this link where I have given a PowerPoint summary of aspects of the report. Just one of many fascinating points to highlight here is that the evidence suggests that efforts to raise standards of teaching excellence which focus on programme and module teams, rather than on individuals, are more likely to succeed.

We are very much looking forward to Graham’s keynote presentation at out Learning at City Conference on 13th June this year. For further details on this and to book a place at the event please contact


For follow up on any of the points raised here please contact Neal Sumner at the Learning Development Centre.



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Digital Researchers Workshop

March 29, 2012 1 comment

Inspired by the recent Digital Researchers event which I blogged about in this previous post, I was keen to provide a workshop to try out some of the social media tools and ideas which I learned about there. With the enthusiastic support of Emily Allbon from Library Services, and the LDC’s intrepid researcher Ajmal Sultany, we were fortunate to have an early opportunity to offer such a workshop. We were joined by a range of researchers and professional staff, some of whom had expertise in aspects of social media and others who were beginners. This meant we were able to share ideas and experiences based on current tools we use, but, according to the feedback we received, everyone took away something new from the event, both in terms of an introduction to specific digital tools and ideas abouthow to manage and use them.

The workshop focused on three core themes: connect, inform, influence. The presentation can be accessed here. We looked at blogging and microblogging tools, social bookmarking and referencing tools and networking. All participants were asked to bring their own preferred digital device so that, where needed, we could set up accounts. Tweets were sent, blogs created, social

Emily (and her avatar!)

bookmarking tools explored. Woven into this practical aspect of the workshop we discussed the affordances of these tools for academic and research purposes, including intellectual property, open access publishing, why to blog, building a research and

academic network, creating virtual communities of practice or inquiry and the advantages and drawbacks of developing a digital identity.

The feedback we received was uniformly positive, with one proviso that three hours weren’t enough! We hope to continue to develop these workshops and would welcome your ideas and input as to what aspects you would like to explore. You can contact us via Twitter at #CityLDC or by email at

Neal Sumner

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Higher Education Academy Seminar Series

Innovation in Assessment: the student learning experience


This is a report on an HEA-sponsored workshop and seminar that showcased innovation in assessment practice at University College London. Details of the presentations are available on this link. A brief summary of the sessions is given below.


Following introductions from Professor Anthony Smith, UCL Vice-Provost, Education, who emphasised the increasing importance of assessment and feedback to the student experience, and Dr Will Curtis from the HEA, who set out the current work of the HEA on academic practice, teacher excellence and institutional strategy, the day focussed on presentations on a variety of different assessment practices grouped into three broad themes.

Under Theme one, Innovative Assessment: a kaleidoscope, we learned about the use of the Moodle quiz tool for both formative and summative assessment designed to address the gap between secondary and tertiary education on a second-year Life Sciences course. Students had consistently found their numeracy skills needed refreshing to meet the required standard, and, through a combination of frequent formative MCQ assessments and their own student-produced animations on the application of calculations to particular experiments, their examination performance and confidence considerably improved. The students particularly appreciated the ability to access these resources at any time (allowing multiple attempts at randomized formative quizzes) and to receive feedback on concepts they did not quite understand without fear of embarrassment.

A second presentation discussed lecture flipping, for which a lecture is recorded in advance of the timetabled session and made available online to the students, who are required to watch the lecture beforehand. They are then asked to formulate and post onto Moodle three questions ahead of the class (supplying the specific time in the recorded lecture to which their question refers) as a formative assessment task. The lecturer identifies the 10 most popular questions and addresses them in the class, which brought increased interaction between the lecturer and students. As studies have demonstrated, formulating relevant questions promotes reflection and can be key to effective learning. If anything, lecture attendance increased as a result.

The final talk under this theme concerned a group activity centred on enriched scenario-based teaching in Health Management. Here, students were given the scenario of managing health in a fictitious region, taking into account all aspects from budgetary management to healthcare provision. Assessments associated with this scenario included oral and written assessments; some of the latter were group-based, but a reflective journal was also included.

Theme twoStudents at the centre of assessment. This session showcased the use of summative MCQ examinations delivered via the Moodle quiz on a postgraduate dentistry course. This provided a solution for various problems of time and resources associated with marking essay-based questions, and research has shown it to be reasonably popular with students. In time, it may be developed to include short-answer questions marked via Moodle. A second presentation reported on an assessment in Electrical Engineering for which students were given a group project (the whole class being subdivided into groups of 5-7) as a competition to work out how to find a telephone number which was being sent along a cable. This involved both formative and summative assessment (students were given feedback on the formative component and enabled to improve and resubmit their work) as well as a reflective portfolio, which included elements of peer assessment.

The third presentation, and my personal favourite, concerned an undergraduate research project in the History of Science and Technology. A student who had done this assessment expressed genuine enthusiasm for the range of assessments associated with this module. With 50% allocated for the project itself (the student identifies and researches the topic, thereby taking ownership of it), 25% on the research folder and 25% a final exam on methodology, there was a diversity of summative assessments, and for the formative activity the students were expected to comment on one another’s work. Projects are then passed on to future cohorts to encourage further work, and annotated bibliographies produced as part of the projects are available to support this inheritance mechanism. They are also published as an edited anthology, which necessitates the cultivating of students’ scholarly skills to an advanced level.

 Theme three – Innovative assessment in the humanities and social sciences. This session opened with discussion of a collaborative international Masters programme in Comparative Literature, whose students were asked to produce an academic hypertext essay, to contribute to an assessed discussion forum and to participate on a collaborative wiki. Although this last aspect did not prove successful, largely because students were relatively unfamiliar with wikis and were uncomfortable with the notion of re-editing each other’s work, they did enjoy the international collaboration through the forum and occasional video conferences which encouraged peer feedback.

The focus of the final presentation was a formative (and subsequently summative) assessment in which students were asked to critique four pieces of writing on Picasso’s Three Dancers, and post a 750-word summary of one of them to an online forum, leading to group discussion. The overarching aim of this activity is to introduce threshold concepts in Art History by encouraging the students to engage with different critical approaches and to reflect upon the differences between them. However, it was noted that there was not as much voluntary online participation as had been hoped.

A productive discussion closed each session and the debates arising from the day were enlivened by a Twitter feed and text wall.

If you would like to know more about any of these assessments then please contact Neal Sumner at the Learning Development Centre.

Neal Sumner &  Dr. Chris Wiley


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LDC Showcase debate 1st February 2012

February 28, 2012 3 comments

An innovation to this year’s Learning Development Centre Showcase event was to open with a debate. The suggestion to hold a debate came from the Associate Deans for Education and the theme was chosen to reflect the focus of the LDC’s work for this year on Assessment and Feedback, which will also form the focus of our Learning Development Conference to be held on 13th June. The topic chosen was ‘Assessment practice in Higher education relies largely on a limited range of methods that are not always fit for purpose’. Proposing the motion was Nigel Duncan, Professor of Legal Education at the City Law School and academic lead for assessment across City University London. Bravely taking up the opposing side was Dr Chris Wiley, Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate programmes in the Centre for Music Studies. A mixed audience of academic and professional staff and students was in attendance.

LDC Showcase debate

Introducing the debate

Professor Duncan opened the debate with a forensic dissection of the motion, noting that he had to persuade the audience that the words ‘largely’ and ‘not always’ were key to his argument that the motion was an accurate analysis of the state of assessment across the Higher Education sector in the UK, and that this applied to assessment practices at City University London, although comparison with assessment practices across the sector shows that City has greater diversity than the average. Research into the range of assessments recorded on the Programme and module specifications held on PRISM, the university’s repository for this information, revealed that of the assessments logged on the system more than half were traditional written assessments, out of 8069 assessments, 2204 are written exams and 4302 are written assignments. 2269 modules are recorded as having only 1 assessment. In Professor Duncan’s view this lack of variety indicates that our assessment practices shows that too much of current practice is assessment of learning, rather than assessment for learning, and this demonstrates that the motion is an accurate description of the status of assessment in the sector generally.

Kicking off the debateDoctor Wiley began his response by recognising that his was the more difficult task since assessment is never popular, especially with students! Nevertheless he rose to the task, pointing out that, as City University London has a particular focus on business and the professions, many assessment practices are externally mandated by professional accrediting bodies, giving module leaders relatively little discretion as to the timing and kinds of assessment which are available to them. Moreover there were questions about the accuracy of the assessment profile recorded in PRISM and that the figures quoted by Professor Duncan may in fact conceal much greater diversity in practice. Additionally the predominance of written assessments did not necessarily imply a uniformity of essays as the major type of assessment; this could also encompass reports, projects, briefs and many others. In Dr Wiley’s view the problem may lie more in the lack of alignment of learning outcomes with assessment, and improving the alignment between these aspects is where the focus should be. Also he felt that lecturers should offer more support to their students in understanding and avoiding plagiarism, since this is one area where students frequently err. Developing skills in this aspect of academic practice would perhaps help reduce the anxiety many students experience when faced with ‘traditional’ forms of assessment.

Both speakers then had an opportunity to respond to the points made by their opponent and then the audience was invited to make comments and question the speakers. A number of student contributors expressed their dissatisfaction with their current assessments, yet recognised the role of external bodies in often determining how assessments were designed. Following a lively discussion an anonymous vote was held using the Personal Response System, and the motion was carried by a 2:1 majority.

Results are in








Feedback collected on the day and subsequently demonstrates the popularity of the debate as a worthwhile innovation to the Showcase, and it is one we will repeat in future.


Neal Sumner.


Categories: Assessment & Feedback

Digital Researcher 2012

February 24, 2012 1 comment

Digital Researcher 2012.

British Library 20.02.2012.

Having been placed on the waiting list for this event I was pleased to discover three days beforehand that I had managed to squeeze in as one of the 113 participants in the Digital Researcher 2012 workshop at the British Library. There were many more virtual participants via Twitter and Facebook.

Dr Tristram Hooley, event director,  set the context for the day by proposing that, whilst digital technologies in general, and social media in particular are transforming academic life, the current  evidence suggests that researchers are not using social media to its full potential due to a lack of training and development in the use of these tools. Yet there is a growing recognition that, given the social nature of the research process, recent developments in digital technologies have much to offer the research community.

The day consisted of 4 workshops: Identifying knowledge, Creating knowledge, Quality Assuring knowledge and Dissemination of knowledge of which participants were able to attend two. A flavour of the materials, tools and topics covered can be accessed from the presentations posted in advance of the sessions. I attended Identifying knowledge and Quality Assuring knowledge, which, though very different in style, were both stimulating and informative: the first about the tools which can help to meet the challenge of information overload, the second on the pros and cons of open publishing and the associated issues of intellectual property.

The highlight of the day for me was the opportunity to reconnect with Martin Weller, Professor of Educational Technology at the Open University, who gave the keynote address to close the event. Drawing on his recent book, The Digital Scholar, itself an exemplar of the move towards open access publishing, Martin outlined how social media is impacting on many aspects of academic life, including the challenge of teaching in the attention economy, how universities adapt to a pedagogy of abundance from a pedagogy of scarcity, how digital distribution of knowledge may produce new forms of public engagement with university research.

Attending the event has given me ideas for ‘Developing the Digital Researcher’ workshops at City University London, details of which will be announced soon.

If you would like to know more then please contact me.

Neal Sumner

Digital Literacies JISC Workshop. Bristol 6th October 2011.

October 10, 2011 Leave a comment

JISC Design Studio

This was one of a series of JISC workshops rolled out across the UK this year ‘to support the development and implementation of institutional approaches to digital literacies across the entire workforce and including students’. It was expertly facilitated by Helen Beetham, Greg Benfield and Paul Bailey, who introduced us to a range of concepts and tools to analyse and progress the implementation of digital literacies. These were in part based on the experiences of nine institutions which had taken part in pilot schemes. Details can be found on this link.

Digital literacy is defined by JISC as ‘ those capabilities which equip an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society’ (JISC LLiDA, 2009). For example, the use of digital tools to undertake academic research, writing and critical thinking; digital professionalism; the use of specialist digital tools and data sets; communicating ideas effectively in a range of media; producing, sharing and critically evaluating information; collaborating in virtual networks; using digital technologies to support reflection and PDP; managing digital reputation and showcasing achievements.
It is increasingly recognised that digital literacy is an important attribute of 21st century ‘graduateness’. This requires institutions to develop strategies for the development of these skills at all levels of the workforce. JISC has produced audit tools to help identify the challenges which face institutions in upskilling the staff and student body: as one participant observed staff can’t expect students to develop these skills if they don’t themselves model digitally literate behaviours – ‘walk the walk, not just talk the talk’! The relevant toolkits for carrying out audits as well as managing and implementing change are available from the first link on this page.
The workshop explored several areas which can be impacted by placing digital literacy at the heart of institutional strategy, including the transformation of curriculum design and delivery, the design of learning spaces and the development of staff and students. If you would like to discuss the implications of embedding digital literacy in your own area or you would like more information about the workshop, please contact Neal Sumner at the LDC.

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