I am not easily impressed by academic papers these days, despite spending much time reviewing submissions to journals, conferences, or workshops. Neither do I propose best paper awards lightly. Here is the rare positive exception: A submission to the LAK15 conference authored by researchers from the Queensland University of Technology in Australia.

The authors propose what they call a Connected Learning Analytics (CLA) toolkit that takes learning analytics well into connected open online learning (including MOOCs). This area has previously been a bit of a stumble as cMOOCs allow students to use any kind of online platform or social network to connect and interact with peers, but analytics were largely unable to follow them in order to provide comprehensive statistical overviews. In institutional learning too analytics have hitherto been siloed in LMSs and, there, analytics have been confined to what the vendors provide – which typically is very little, and, equally typical, is oriented toward business intelligence rather than learning. Yet, almost all learning in formal and informal environments today is enhanced by social learning experiences and networks such as twitter or facebook.

Analytics is something that in most institutional settings is done to students rather than by students. The paper clearly breaks with this approach. In our framework on Learning Analytics my colleague and I strongly proposed pedagogic reflection as the key to learning with analytics. Still, most statistical approaches leave analytics in the hands of institutions with the aim of achieving effectiveness measures on academic staff or materials rather than providing pedagogic support. In this setting, students are primarily the data subjects, not the beneficiaries or clients. This is remarkably different in the proposed paper, as it puts students in control of their LA.

The article proposes a student owned method to connect different (social) learning tools to an analytics engine. It uses a subscription method that the students control. What impressed me in the order of magnitude to suggest it as best paper was where the paper went beyond the general technical description of the tool and accompanying ontology to map social network functions to one-another (‘likes’ to ‘+1′ to ‘thumbs-up’ etc.). The authors spent enormous thought, care, and consideration on student centredness, pedagogic reflection, competences, security, data ownership, and even interoperability/portability for lifelong learning.

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I recently found my travel dates on Google maps on my phone:


Sure enough, I was booked into the Apartmenthotel Citykoti on these dates, but how did this information promulgate to Google maps? I did not put it there, that much is certain. It could have been taken from my e-mail booking, which, since recently, Google translates into travel information (such as flight bookings) and which looks like this:


Or it could be that Google cut a special deal with booking.com or tripit.com. Finally, I also thought that Google might have taken it directly from my calendar, but I didn’t have it in my calendar in this detail. In the end, it remained a mystery how my travel booking arrived on Google maps.

I am not sure whether to see this as helpful or as a scary threat to privacy. Who else sees this information – no-one, of course, Google would not do such kind of thing! (;-)

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I just read a very interesting article from the University of Waikato, New Zealand, describing a tool they developed at the OER Research Hub to facilitate formal and informal language learning. FLAX, that’s the name of the tool, stands for Flexible Language Acquisition. It compiles text corpora using open content from the OER world, MOOCs, and Open Access articles. The demonstration packs currently available include a collection from law texts and even video transcripts from YouTube and Vimeo lectures about law. They assure us that anyone can create own collections with ease.


These text collections are combined with simple language technologies like frequencies, collocations and Google ngram to detect key concepts and phrases in the texts. They can be enriched with linked data information from Wikipedia and Google, which allows learners to explore legal terminology, like ‘precautionary principle’, find their meaning and usage in sentences or phrases. In this way, it is hoped and hypothesised that independent learners will be able to improve their linguistic skills. A module for Moodle already exists and it is intended that FLAX will also find use in MOOCs to help with domain concepts and language issues.

FLAX is based on Open Source software from the New Zealand Digital Library Project and comes with instructions to set up your own collection.

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Yes Scotland

If there’s one thing we can learn from the run up to the Scottish referendum, it’s this: People are not tired of politics, as has often been claimed in and around general elections. They are tired of party politics!!

Especially young voters are keenly involved in finding their way round the socio-political landscape. But, what they want is direct democracy and voting on issues, not parties with whole-sale agendas and manifests, of which they only like some 30 odd % or less. A similar trend could be observed earlier in the emergence of Pirate parties. Maybe an independent Scotland is an opportunity to provide this.

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My response to this article in the HE Chronicle. The MIT’s reaction to the high number of drop-outs in MOOCs is to wonder whether there is nothing wrong with the mode, but rather with the format of providing courses (or semesters) instead of what learners seek, i.e. bits of learning:

“People now buy songs, not albums. They read articles, not newspapers. So why not mix and match learning “modules” rather than lock into 12-week university courses?”

MIT now consider offering modules instead of courses. This, at least in Europe, is no new thing. I have been involved in the modularisation of courses almost two decades ago, the intent then being to provide more flexibility and interdisciplinarity within courses, and efficiency in their delivery. And there is nothing wrong with that, as experience has shown. However, what I read in the article is that the motivation for modularisation is demand-driven only, i.e. “what students want”. Concluding that because students like it short, it therefore is automatically better and successful, is wrong!

I have long been arguing that there is a difference between learning and education. Yes, learning leads to education, but it’s the holistics that counts. Unless the modules are connected (by design within the framework of, say, a course!), learning individual chunks of domain knowledge may be personal, may be enough if you just refresh your memory and already have sufficient other knowledge, may be satisfying, but isn’t enough to qualify for expertise. This is where learning and education differ: an educational qualification includes things that you didn’t consider learning. Leaving learning to the fancies of a student alone isn’t going to empower them. It leads to the much criticised graduates that can’t read properly, that skipped literature or grammar or cultural studies in language learning, etc. or, in other words, people who don’t comprehend the greater picture and therefore are at a disadvantage.

Here’s another example: Just learning to drive a car isn’t quite enough to qualify for modern road traffic, though essentially that is what learners want to achieve. Who ever enjoyed studying the highway codes or technical details of car? Therefore, taking a module of a driving lesson alone isn’t going to cut it. Sure one can always argue about what parts of a curriculum are obligatory and which aren’t, but I think in the bigger picture we got mechanisms that regulate this rather successfully and with the variety needed to provide for personal choices across the educational landscape.

I for one would not like to fly with a pilot who just studied the take-off procedures but no landing…!


PS: I acknowledge that for MOOCs the approach of micro-learning and modularisation maybe acceptable when looking at a primarily CPD audience who are interested in updating or refreshing their existing knowledge base. This as I have always argued is the key sector for MOOCs (cf. also Diana Laurillard’s recent analyis in THES).


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I like approaches like Galaxy Zoo or the still ongoing SETI@home action. What I particularly like about it is the simplicity and the collaboration. This encapsulates the true spirit of humanity for me where people work together to solve questions, issues, or challenges.



Similar to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk human brainpower is used to advance some quest or other.


Now there is an interesting EU project under way that aims to harvest people power for science. It’s appropriately called Socientize. One of the initiatives is to ask people to report when they caught the flu, so data maps of outbreaks can be generated. Volunteers can help analyse datasets too or learn things about science. The project also engages in policy development.

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This is kind of funny: A survey among 850,000 students in 21 countries worldwide initiated by Laureate Education inc. (which claims to be the world’s largest higher education company) resulted in a positive vision for the university of the future – it is accessible, flexible, innovative, and job focused.

Why is this funny? Because, it merely shows that customers/students will just mirror the vision that is implanted in their heads through the student experience and the media coverage around them. This is no vision of the future, it’s the status quo!

Anyway, the full report is here.

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There is continuous tension between the forces of elitarianism and the commons. The Open Education agenda is a good example of the latter, traditional universities are the stereotypical emblem of the former.

Universities were originally built upon a model of scarcity, holding a monopoly in access to high level knowledge, in access to experts, and in value of graduates. This model has been challenged by drastic changes, most notably the widening access policies. The philosophy of establishing a knowledge society and a knowledge economy dominates the political agenda of herding as many young people through university education as possible. It not only industrialised the knowledge acquisition processes (facilitated by new technologies), but at the same time it made knowledge a competitive asset on a large scale. This introduced neo-liberal ideas to the economy of knowledge creation and transfer, thereby replacing earlier humanitarian ideals.

With HE participation rates of 75-80% and above in Western countries, the goal of mass educating people through HE can be said to having been achieved. The question is: where next? Not only does the system crack under the financial burden of its elevated costs (even though academic and administrative staff numbers were not growing at the same rate as students), it also leads to inflation of the “product” in terms of graduates and their salaries. If seen purely from the efficiency and cost effectiveness perspective, one could argue that a large part of the population is over-educated for the jobs they will be doing. Now, good education is a warrant for a peaceful, prosperous and adaptive society, but these arguments normally don’t play a part in debates about the cost effectiveness of the HE system which has become obsessed with the goal of producing workers for the job market.

All societies live with and require leaders. This cannot only be seen in indigenous populations with their council of elders and chieftains, but also there are more positions for employees than CEOs. To make leaders distinguishable from others, one needs criteria and extra values. In current Western HE, this requires longer study, among other things. Since general education and the ordinary BA graduation puts you in line with millions of other achievers, further study (Master or PhD) or quality work experience can form one of the visible distinctions.

The question is what type of elite do we want? In modern university systems, openness has been used as the promoter of inclusive egalitarian education. Now, with the aid of (affordable) technology people can study from anywhere, access knowledge objects, OERs, data, publications, MOOCs and so forth. The real savings in this, however, go to governments as these welcome initiatives provide them with a convenient excuse not to invest in the affordability of the established system. So, after pushing the cost down the food chain to the lowest level, i.e. the student, the learning arrangement now too is outsourced to them. What is sold as “open” and “free” is in fact “do it yourself – we don’t care”! Within the system, at the same time, a new “Walled Garden” is re-established for the elite few who are able to afford paying expensive fees for support services, live experts, and the “campus club” experience. Thus, HEIs return to being the elitist training ground they always were, but instead of an elite formed by intellectual merits it may purely be based on wealth.

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The EU has an ongoing row with Google over allegations that it manipulates search results in its favour and generally is becoming too powerful for the Internet market.

I noted recently that Google’s search results show YouTube links quite prominently placed on the first page. Not in a separate box, but among the result links and, hence, pushing other items out of the first page list. While YouTube links are indeed quite relevant in most of the cases, the suspicion arises that Google tries to further traffic to YouTube for reasons of generating advertising revenue.

The danger that the one-stop-shop (that users want) also becomes a manipulative engine in showing the results others want us to see was always evident. But, apparently, a new age may be dawning with Google under investigation and the demand from the Commission that it has to provide the possibility to “forget” and delete information about individuals on request. That will be a challenge and a half, for not only would it be difficult to establish that a request is genuine, but to distinguish between hundreds of John Appleseeds is near impossible.

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This maybe a long-term issue. Not only is future compatibility of digital technologies a major concern, it seems that digital assets undergo substantial decay, maybe even more so than earlier and much more senior media like magnetic tapes or vinyl.

I recently noticed that some of my carefully collected mp3 files show signs of decay and breakage. A song has interruptions or ends in the middle. This is not a single file that’s affected but several (around 0.5% of my music collection). I am unsure of the reasons for this, maybe it is the back-up actions that I perform regularly which – through constant read-write processes – destroys the file structure.

Annoying as this may be, similar things happen to my DVD movies. Some of the disks no longer allow me to access the menu options. To be sure, my DVDs were never exposed to extensive heat or humidity. On introduction to the market advertised as virtually indestructible, both DVDs and CDs, CD-ROMs don’t seem to be as long lasting as promised. By comparison, my LP records and music tapes from the 70s are still in good shape. My VHS tapes are a bit snowy, but still work under the same conditions as always.

This leads to three issues where trust in digital storage is shaken:

– the data itself, as decay of bits and bytes may render an object illegible

– the format, where changes may result in uselessness, e.g. screen resolution of old mpegs are no longer acceptable and some .avi’s are not readable anymore

– the machinery, such as DVD recorders that no longer support older objects (menus, selection interfaces, etc.)

In the digital world, storage is a big gamble. I remember mini-disks as the latest thing on the market. Fortunately, I never took the decision to go with them. HD-DVD came to the same inglorious end  – I owned one there, which I keep to sell to a museum in due course.


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