People are all the same but students are all different

ayam-titaniumThis month’s blog is coming from Malaysia, I have been presenting at the ICAEW learning conference in KL. The only relevance of this, is that as with any lecture/presentation or lesson you have to put yourself in the shoes of your audience and ask, what do they want to get out of this, why are they giving up their valuable time and in many instances money to listen to what you have to say?

The difference in presenting to a group of people from another country is that you start to question the way they think and perhaps learn, is it the same or could you be making a big mistake by assuming it is.

Neurologically we are all the same

What gave me confidence was that I was talking about how you learn and examinations. And although there will certainly be many differences in culture, language, opinion, even what is considered funny, our brains are all made exactly the same, and as a result the process of learning is the same.

Malaysian jokes

Q: What is Malaysians’ favourite dish? – A: Astro

Q: What is the strongest chicken in the world? – A: Ayam Titanium

So everything I said about memorising content using spaced repetition, the importance of having bite sized chunks of information, the need to present an overview at the start of each session etc was met with nods of approval.

Students are different

ctcnyapxyaamd0c

However just because we have the same neurological components does not mean they are all used in the same way. And so it would have been a mistake for me to have presented trends observed in the UK as to the attitude of students towards learning as if they were the typical attitudes of all students, in particular Malaysian ones. The reason being, I have little knowledge of the Malaysian education system, parenting skills, culture etc, these are what help shape the beliefs, values and attitudes of students in Malaysia and in turn give every student their own unique learning style.

Learning styles are unique

The generalisation about Malaysian learning styles was that there was a tendency to rank passing exams as being the most important aspect of education. This had resulted in a number of issues, one being a lack of leadership skills. Who did they blame, well they blamed the teachers for being uninspiring and measuring students by the grades they had historically achieved rather than the grades they might achieve. The point here is not in any way a criticism of the Malaysian system, there are equally many problems in the UK but to highlight why learning has to be personalised. It of course goes even deeper than nationalistic trends, clearly not all Malaysian students are focused only on passing exams and some will make great leaders, everyone is unique.

But are the teachers to blame?

If you agree with the research produced by John Hattie from the University of Auckland, the answer is yes, the teachers are to blame. His research which was built up over 15 years suggest that an individual students inherent qualities account for 50% of their ability to achieve, but on the basis this cannot be changed it would be better to look at the next biggest attribute that can be influenced. Interestingly this had little to do with who you went to school with, the so called peer effect, your home life, the school you went to, and certainly not the technology used. It was all about the teacher or type of teacher you had. It is what teachers do, know and care about that makes the difference, 30% of the difference in fact.

I am sure that advocates of on-line will suggest that this is not about the teacher but the type of instruction, but at this stage of the debate that will only cloud the issue. This simply highlights the importance teaching or instruction as being the most important aspect of learning wherever you are in the world. Of course your peers, classrooms, technology all contribute but if you want to make investment in learning, spend it on developing the teachers.

My time in Malaysia comes to an end this evening but even if my presentation did not achieve all I had expected, and I hope it did, I feel I have learned a little more, as the Malay saying goes….. Everyday a thread, soon a cloth.

And if you would like to read more about John Hatties research, read the Click the link.

 

 

Currywurst , apples and the £33,000 a year boarding school

currywurst

Currywurst fast becoming the most popular dish in Berlin

I have three relatively unrelated stories this month.

Berlin

The first follows a trip to Berlin this weekend and the obligatory city tour. Just of Unter den Linden you will find a sunken glass plate between the pavement that provides a view into a room full of empty bookshelves, sufficient to house the 20,000 books that were destroyed on this site on the 10th of May 1933. Some 70,000 people, many German university students gathered to burn books with “unGerman” ideas. Joseph Goebbels joined the students at the bonfire and declared: ” The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character.” “It is to this end that we want to educate you.”

This was not only symbolic but practical. Without these books or to be precise only having the ones that remained, it might just be possible to create a nation of people who all think the same? Who all share the same ideals and live life by the same values. And yet of course this is not how you create an educated society, a society able to think for itself, the result will be compliance and idealism. Which was more likely what Goebbels had in mind.

Goodwill Hunting

When I got home one of my favourite movies had already started. Good Will Hunting tells the story of a maths genius, Will Hunting who struggles to come to terms with his past and as a result is unable to make a commitment for fear of being let down. But for me the best scene is where Will confronts a first year grad student who has been belittling his friend Chuckie.

Will: “Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth…” You got that from Vickers. “Work in Essex County,” Page 98, right? Yeah I read that too. Were you gonna plagiarize the whole thing for us, you have any thoughts of your own on this matter? Or is that your thing, you come into a bar, you read some obscure passage and then you pretend, you pawn it off as your own, your own idea just to impress some girls? Embarrass my friend?

Will: See the sad thing about a guy like you, is in about 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life. One, don’t do that. And two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fxxxin’ education you coulda’ got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library.

Clark: Yeah, but I will have a degree, and you’ll be serving my kids fries at a drive-thru on our way to a skiing trip. Will: [smiles] Yeah, maybe. But at least I won’t be unoriginal.

This of course challenges the idea that knowledge is the same as thinking. Knowing something is not the same as having manipulated the information in your head, questioned and explored the arguments from many angles, the result should be an opinion, not someone else’s but your own.

Wellington college

And finally to bring my trilogy up to date. Only this week Wellington College who boast George Orwell and Sebastian Faulks as past students announced that have introduced a six-hour interview process to help teachers see beyond children’s over tutoring. They encourage families to spend more quality time instead of having their children tutored, Julian Thomas, Wellington’s head master, said: “When parents ask how should they prepare their children for our selection process, we tell them ‘have supper together and talk as a family; go to plays and good films and discuss them. Help them to think critically about the world around them; enjoy interesting conversations go out for walks and see the world”.

What Wellington are trying to do is encourage behaviours that will help children become thinking adults.

In conclusion

Knowledge like information is becoming increasingly accessible, unlike Germany in 1933 we have no restrictions, the internet has given us that power. But learning is more than knowledge you have to take the facts and make them your own, stitching them together carefully and thoughtfully, and that takes time and a considerable amount of effort. On the whole absorbing information will probably not come as easy to you as it did to Will Hunting, yet even with his genius he only knew what he had read. His learning had in fact only just begun as he went looking for the real life experiences that would test if he really understood anything at all.

Examinations are moving more towards tests that require you to think, asking that you provide an opinion or make recommendations given a set of circumstances, case studies are a good example. Of course you need knowledge as a foundation but the ability to sift quickly through the vast amount of information available may in time become more important than knowledge itself .

Ps apples is taken from Good Will Hunting – “How ya like those apples”

 

 

The tip of the iceberg – exam tipping is becoming obsolete

tip1

Assessment is changing, there was a time when all examinations were sat in a room, the answers would be hand written on a piece of paper and a retired English teacher would stand at the front reading out instructions as to what you could and couldn’t do in the next three hours.

Not any more…….you request a date that is convenient, turn up at the exam center, no longer is this a sports hall, it might be a driving school test center or the college you studied at. Then you log onto the PC and answer questions on the computer screen in front of you. The results may be immediate; it depends on if it is “human marked” or computer marked.

But in some ways these changes are only the tip of the iceberg!

What no past exam papers.

As examinations move into the digital world we are seeing other changes as well. There is a move towards objective testing, scaled scoring and examining bodies no longer providing past exam papers, what did you say, no past exam papers……!

This is partly down to the nature of the test i.e. you can’t provide an exact replica of a past exam question if it is an objective test. Remember objective test questions are randomly selected from a pool, and are different for each student. But there is also a shift towards some examining bodies only providing an example of the type of questions that could be set rather that a continuous flow of, the last exam papers.

If the test changes – how you study (and teach) has to change

Now for someone who has advocated that students analyse past exam questions in order to identify key areas so as to better direct their studies, this is a bit of a blow. It has also been the method I have used in the past to focus my own delivery in class and on line. Of course using past exam questions has always been much more than just spotting key areas, it is about focus, providing a place to start, showing content in the right context, helping with writing style etc.

There will still be past questions, sample questions will be provided. What we don’t know is how representative they will be of the examination. Or will it be as we have seen in the past with pilot and specimen papers, they change over time, drifting away from the original in terms of style and emphasis. Although I can see the logic in examining bodies not releasing papers, I hope they will continue to keep the sample papers fresh, in keeping with current thinking about the subject and how it will be examined.

What to do?

Students and tutors still need focus, there has to be emphases on key areas in order to chunk the content so that it can be more easily learned, it’s just that we won’t be able to use past questions or at least as much as we have in the past. That emphasis will now have to come from articles written by the examiners, examiner reports and syllabus weightings. If faced with a new subject where there is only one sample paper, it will be necessary to read the guidance from the body closely, noting reference to “this being a key part of the subject” or “one the examiner thought was answered badly in the past.” These together with the syllabus weightings and specific learning outcomes will have to be your guide. It is of course possible that the subject has not changed much from before and so some of the older past question can be used. As far as questions style is concerned then that will have to come from the questions and answers that are published, it may not be ideal but it’s the best we can do.

The overall impact of these changes is that students will have to know more, something that is hard to argue with. Students and tutors alike will have to devote far more time to the subject, which is fine if students have the time and can afford the extra costs involved in longer periods of study.

But it’s not all bad news, new technologies can help students make the most of dead time, studying on the train using their mobile phone for example. Also knowledge is more freely available than ever before as many top institutions provide a huge amount of free easy to access content online.

One final thought, examinations may change and they may not be fair but on the whole they are equal, everyone as before is in the same boat, and someone will always pass, wont they!

The future – Sitting the exam at home?

On line exams

An online student, all be it a mature one shows his ID to the online assessor

And maybe even the exam room will become obsolete. Proctur U is a US based company that also has a presence in the UK offering online invigilation. Watch this video to see how it works and judge for yourself

 

 

Why cramming works and making stuff up is okay

Will making stuff up

Will making stuff up

To a certain extent I have spent much of my career making things up. When I was a student that was not the case, I listened and learned and so when I spoke, I spoke with confidence that what I was saying was correct, because someone had just told me it was. Yet knowing is only the start, and in some ways a poor relative of the “figuring it out for yourself” technique.  I am reminded of quote from the film Good Will Hunting, which along with Dead Poets capture some really magical moments in learning.

Will Hunting – “See, the sad thing about a guy like you is in 50 years you’re gonna start doing some thinkin on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life.” “One, don’t do that.” “And Two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a f***in education you coulda got for a dollah fifty in late charges at the public library.”

 Question practice – the secret to exam success

Having had no real formal educational training I have been exploring ideas as to why some techniques work and others don’t, why it is that student A passes yet student B who did exactly the same, failed. One clear observation from over twenty years in the high stakes exam world is that the most important activity that a student can engage in is, question practice. As a lecturer I would make statements, explain them using real world examples, get students to laugh, and maybe even enjoy the subject. But, the very best learning seemed to happen when the student was required to do a question. So it was with great interest that I read of some research that came out of the US in 2011, it’s called Retrieval Practice.

 Retrieval practice – the power of cramming

Retrieval practice is simply the process of retrieving something from memory.  So for example if I asked you, who was the Prime Minister that took us into the European Economic Community in 1973, you might say, on reflection Edward Heath. You already knew the answer but were forced to recall it. If however you were not sure who it was and were subsequently told (given feedback) it was Edward Heath and that Harold Wilson in 1975 held the first referendum, you are likely to remember both. But the most interesting and perhaps surprising aspect of this research is that not only can you recall the facts, it also leads to a deeper learning in so much that you can answer questions on related information. This in some ways gives credence to the idea that cramming information, maybe not at the last minute could be beneficial, not simply because you will remember it for a few hours’ but that it will lead to deeper learning.

Mark McDaniel is a psychology professor at Washington University in St. Louis

“We think of tests as a kind of dipstick that we insert into a student’s head, an indicator that tells us how high the level of knowledge has risen in there when in fact, every time a student calls up knowledge from memory, that memory changes.” “Its mental representation becomes stronger, more stable and more accessible.”

Jeffrey Karpicke, a professor of cognitive psychology at Purdue University

“Retrieving is the principal way learning happens.” “Recalling information we’ve already stored in memory is a more powerful learning event than storing that information in the first place,” he says. “Retrieval is ultimately the process that makes new memories stick.” “Not only does retrieval practice help students remember the specific information they retrieved, it also improves retention for related information that was not directly tested.”

Final thoughts

And so I am pleased to say that what I have observed in the classroom, that question practice improves exam results might be a little simplistic and that not only does it help students pass exams they might actually have been learning something at the same time 🙂

If you want to read more follow these links

To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test (New York Times)

Researchers Find That Frequent Tests Can Boost Learning (Scientific American)

So you want to be an astronaut – assessment for astronauts

 

Astronaut-Tim-Peake-Dials-Wrong-Phone-Number-from-Space

Your there by yourself. There’s no doctor, there’s no computer engineer – so you have to learn all of these skills. Tim Peake

What is the purpose of assessment?

In order to gain a better understanding of the assessment process for astronauts, let’s ask a more basic question first, what is an assessment and what does it prove?

At one level it is simply a measurement of performance benchmarked against a given outcome or standard. The results can, help a teacher identify progress so they can adapt the next lesson, or give assurance an individual is capable of performing a particular task. This is probably the most important type of assessment for astronauts.   Modern high stakes “examinations however play another role; they offer the student a transferable badge of honour that can help open doors to better career prospects and increased salary. If you doubt the importance of this last point, click this link to read about the level of corruption in India and the lengths people will go in order to obtain a certificate saying they have passed an exam.

Employability gap – so what’s the problem?

However examinations on their own do not provide a guarantee that the individual who passes will be able to do the job.  And it is here where the disconnect becomes clear. Often the method of assessment is not based on what the student will be doing in the work place, and even if it is, it is not set in the same context. Many believe this gap has become ever wider as more and more students come out of school/university lacking the skills required by the employer.

But should the exam/assessment be changed to narrow the gap or is it the role of the employer to provide the necessary “on the job” education in the work place? However the problem with the employer being given the responsibility, it implies that what you study doesn’t matter, only that you do. This just seems wasteful, wasteful of time, money and effort. Assessment must get closer to measuring the skills required for one simple reason, what gets measured gets achieved, a cliché for sure but a true one.

Assessment for astronauts

Costs – The costs involved in training astronauts is a bit unclear, NASA will pay Russia $70m for a seat on Russian space craft in 2017 that includes training, figures of around $25m are also cited, Tim Peaks training was quoted as £16m so very similar.

Basic requirements – Mission Specialist (non pilots – most are pilots with a military background) include the following:

  1. Bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution in engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics. The degree must be followed by at least three years of related, progressively responsible, professional experience.
  2. Ability to pass a NASA space physical, which is similar to a military or civilian flight physical.
  3. Height between 58.5 and 76 inches.

Training – Tim Peak’s education started in 2008 when he was selected by ESA (European space agency) from 8,413 applicants. Tests at this stage included, intelligence, spatial awareness and concentration. Then for the 10 selected another 18 months of intense training followed, this time on topics as wide ranging as space law, rocket propulsion, spaceflight engineering and the hardest for Tim, learning to speak Russian. He was also subject to one week’s caving in Sardinia, Italy, with five other astronauts to simulate what it would be like in space, this was to build teamwork, problem solving and cope with poor hygiene facilities. Then it was one year of advanced training, including working underwater to simulate the lack of gravity. In 2013 it was time to go into space for the first time, this was the last test before being selected and then finally in 2015 Tim was allowed to do the job for real. In all it had taken 6/7 years.

What have we learned?

Clearly you need some underpinning academic skills i.e. a degree but a relevant one. The training is provided by the state, the argument being that it is for the greater good of society so the costs should be met by the tax payer. An interesting point for those that believe this should be the case for all education. But most importantly the assessments were all built around making sure that when Tim got into the space he could do the job. Very few of the tests required a piece of paper and a desk, and many were simulations of what he would meet in the real world.

Given the advances in technology the time is now right to introduce more simulations into the exam room, not so we can all become astronauts but to help prepare the next generation for the work place.

And just imagine your badge of honour when going for that next job – “what exams have you passed” “oh a few, but did I mention I was an astronaut…..”

 

Confused about University, I am – Training V Education

Birmingham Uni

Birmingham University

Last month students across the UK would have received those all important exam results informing them if they have been awarded the grades necessary to get into the university of their choice. It’s easy to get caught up in this process seeing it as the end goal rather than part of a journey, I speak with some degree of experience. But how will the lucky ones judge if the next three years will be worth it. What does a university education give you……surely it’s more than a ticket to the next stage in the game i.e. Go to university-get a good job.

Training or education

We may find some of the answers by taking a closer look at the distinction between education and training. I thought finding a definition of education would be easy, yet many referred to it as being something obtained from going to School, College or University and I was looking for a more insightful observation. The business dictionary of all places seemed to offer a little more along these lines – The wealth of knowledge acquired by an individual after studying particular subject matters or experiencing life lessons that provide an understanding of something.

Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave”
Lord Henry Brougham

Training proved a little easier to pin down. Here a couple of definitions – The action of teaching a person or animal a particular skill or type of behaviour (Oxford dictionary) and The process of bringing a person to an agreed standard of proficiency by practice and instruction. (Collins)

Still not clear, this might help – “If your sixteen year old daughter told you that she was going to take a sex education course at college, you might be pleased. But if she said she was going to take part in some sex training you might have something to say?”

Training and employability

BCU formerly Birmingham Polytechnic

Training is relatively narrow and largely relates to developing skills and ending up with the ability to do something. This is most closely linked to employability. Employers don’t want students who know things, they want students who can do things. But is this what a university education should be about , is it the place that simply prepares students for work?

This was much easier to answer when Polytechnics existed. These were “educational” institutions that focused on STEM subjects and had close ties with industry. They however lacked degree awarding powers and invested little in research so were seen a poor relatives of the then university. But there was little doubt as to what their objectives were.

Confusion

This is not a plea to bring back Polytechnics, although it doesn’t seem such a bad idea does it? No its more about the confusion that exits’ as to what employers want, what students expect and who universities think they are. Are they educational establishments or training grounds for the next generation of employees?

Maybe they can be both but if identities are not made clear soon, those students who have worked so hard to get into the university of their choice may find themselves disappointed with what they end up with.

More quotes about education 

For the pragmatist – A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole rail road.Theodore Roosevelt

Its about learning how to think – The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education. Martin Luther King, Jr.

And you cant go wrong with MT – Education: the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty. Mark Twain

A Nostradamus moment – Predicting learning in the future

Top-5-Nostradamus-Predictions-That-Came-TrueLast year along with a colleague I looked into some of the key trends that were shaping the world of Professional Education. The result was the production of a Learning Strategy completed in December 2014. The document highlighted some of what we thought might impact our organisation in the future. Taking the technologies, attitudes and resources of today and guessing how they might change is certainly brave, possibly foolish, but reading what others think is always interesting.

Tomorrow I will be visiting the Digital Education show in Earls Court; guest speakers include Sugata Mitra, Richard Gerver and Sir Ken Robinson. The topics up for debate are current, wide reaching and of course equally prophetic.  Add to this the publication of the 2015 Horizon higher education report and you get an irresistible mix of views on the future, some of which I have highlighted below.

The measurement of learning will increase

Good teachers have always tracked student performance. It may have been in their head, summarised at the end of term in the form of a report but measuring student performance is certainly not new. The difference is now the results are more public, displayed in league tables showing winners and losers. In addition we have data not just on one student but thousands and once you have data, big data in fact, you analyse it, learning analytics is born. This allows you to make recommendations for improvement and predictions based on the observed trends and patterns. Given that new technologies make the gathering of data relatively easy, measuring student performance and the methods by which they learn will only increase.

All classroom courses will become a blend

The genie is out of the bottle, learning in a classroom complimented by the use of instructionally sound online resources offers so many benefits. It enables a more personalised learning experience, makes effective use of student time outside the classroom and is often mobile resulting in greater convenience.  It is hard to see why you would ever have just classroom only courses again. Yet not all courses are a blend or to be precise although they have online resources they are little more than a classroom course with some online PDF’s or links that are not used due to poor quality, relevance or support from the teacher, so we still have some way to go.

Informal learning will emerge from the shadows

So wrong!

So wrong!

Informal learning or as it sometimes called student/curiosity led learning has always existed but is now more easily recognised. Teachers and educators are also beginning to invest time into using it more effectively.  Once again technology is playing an important role by making knowledge more accessible and facilitating greater collaboration via online forums and social networks.

Video is an incredibly successful example of social learning, it’s hard to imagine but YouTube didn’t exist before 2005, that’s only 10 years ago. It now has 1 billion users, 300 hours’ of video are uploaded every minute and is available in 61 languages. A very practical example of learning with video can be found by clicking the banana – trust me you won’t be disappointed.

And that’s just three

I could equally have mentioned:

  • More money will be spent on personalisation and adaptive technologies
  • Greater acceptance of BYOD – your own devise that you take from home to class to work
  • Wearable learning technologies – think how wearable sports devices have expanded recently
  • Internet of things (IoT) – a network of connected objects that link the physical world with the world of information through the web could provide a wealth of new ways of learning

How did I do?

A similar blog from 2011

 

Election special – who has had the best education?

The direction in which education starts a man will determine his future in life

Plato

uk-politiciansInspired by the election and the personalities that have been thrust upon us during the run up to next Thursdays vote, I thought it might be interesting to look at the academic backgrounds of those that have ambition to be Prime Minster. It might even give you some help in choosing who to vote for.

The contenders

8761f28.jpgDavid Cameron – born 1966 – David William Donald Cameron was bought up in Peasemore, Berkshire his father was a stockbroker and mother a retired Justice of the Peace. He attended Heatherdown Preparatory School (12 O levels – 4 A’s, 5 B’s, a C and 2 below C) before moving to Eton, the school that can boast 19 past British Prime Ministers. After A levels (3 A grades) he went to Brasenose College, Oxford, from which he graduated in 1988 with a first in philosophy, politics and economics.

 

Ed MilibandEd Miliband – born 1969 – Edward Samuel Miliband went to Haverstock Comprehensive School (Labours Eton), North London. His father, a Polish Jew, was one of the leading Marxist theorists of his generation. His mother, Marion Kozak, is a long-standing human rights campaigner. After completing his A Levels (A,A,B,B) he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, gaining a 2:1 and later Economics at the London School of Economics where he received his MSc.

 

The King makers

Nick CleggNick Clegg – born 1967 – Nicholas William Peter Clegg was raised in Buckinghamshire by his Dutch mother, a special needs teacher and his half Russian father, Nicholas P Clegg CBE, the chairman of united trust bank. Clegg was educated at two independent schools, Caldecott School in Farnham Royal in South Buckinghamshire, and later at Westminster School in Central London. He went on to study Social Anthropology at Cambridge (2:1) and continued post graduate studies at University of Minnesota through a scholarship where he wrote a thesis on the political philosophy of the Deep Green movement. He then went to the College of Europe in Bruges for his Masters.

Nigel FarageNigel Farage – born 1964 – Nigel Paul Farage grew up in the Kent village of Downe. His father, Guy Justus Oscar Farage, was a stockbroker and heavy drinker left the family home when he was five. He was educated at Greenhayes School for Boys in West Wickham, then Eden park before joining  Dulwich College (The Dulwich experiment)  an independent public school in south London. After A levels he decided not to go to university, but to work in the City, trading commodities at the London Metal Exchange.

Nicola SturgeonNicola Sturgeon – born 1970 – Nicola Ferguson Sturgeon is the eldest of three daughters born to Robert Sturgeon, an electrician, and Joan Kerr Sturgeon a dental nurse. She grew up in Prestwick and Dreghorn and attended Dreghorn Primary School and then Greenwood Academy. She later studied at the University of Glasgow, where she read Law and graduated with a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) and a Diploma in Legal Practice.

 

And the winner is………

By most people’s standards all our candidates had a very good education, progressed academically and enjoyed school life. In addition, with the exception of Nigel Farage whose father left when he was 5, all have had full parental support.

Some statistics-In 1981 around the time David Cameron was taking his O levels only 25% of students got 5+ GCSE O levels, and around 10% went on to gain 3 A level passes. In 2014 (admittedly many years later – but it will give us an idea) Oxford received 17,000 applications for 3,200 places, that’s a 5% chance of being accepted.  So Cameron, Miliband and Clegg all stand out. Farage and Sturgeon are clearly well educated but do not have such a strong academic background.

Not a political statement but

Overall for me the person who has had the “best” education is Nick Clegg. David Cameron and to a lesser extent Ed Miliband have had a rather insular academic journey. But Clegg went to Cambridge, then travelled to the US and Europe to study, which must have broadened his views, exposing him to the opinions and cultures of other students, many with different backgrounds . And in second place I would probably go for Nigel Farage, yes I did say Nigel Farage, not the man you understand, but as a good A level student he went into the world of work, the university of life argument.

PS – The former Conservative Prime Minister John Major famously left his comprehensive school, Rutlish, in London with three O-Levels: history, English language and English literature.

 

The Price is right? – Value for Money Education

The Price is RightThe idea behind the price is right was that you had to guess the price of an everyday object. Not a complicated game I admit but by game show standards a successful one, it ran from 1984 to 2007. But how do you know if something is the right price? What does “right price” even mean?

 

Easier in a market where there are many similar products all providing a similar service or experience, not so easy when assessing the value is subjective, comparability difficult  and getting it wrong  expensive. This is exactly the situation you might find when trying to choose a course provider, a college or university. How do you know if you’re getting value for money, if one provider is more expensive than another is it extra profit, inefficiency or a measure of quality and so value?

What do you want?

The first question to ask is, what do you want from the course provider and how will you measure success? On the face of it the answer may seem obvious – it’s to pass the exam or get as high a grade as possible. But learning is about so much more than the exam result, isn’t it?

What about the skills you develop and the knowledge you acquire, what about the people you will meet and the inspiration, motivation and direction you will receive? These are difficult to measure and are often ignored yet in the long run are probably far more valuable than the passing of an exam.  Also would you be happy with knowing just enough to pass and then afterwards forgetting everything, is that what you pay for, is that value for money?

A high quality provider will teach content and explain concepts so that you not only retain knowledge but develop a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

So it’s all about passing?

You may want to pass but what method of study will give you the best chance of passing? How much contact time do you The price of everythingexpect? Are you sufficiently self motivated that you need little or no help, do you want the convenience of studying online or the discipline of having to go to lectures? You may be aware of the method you prefer but many students aren’t. The better provider will know enough about you as an individual, and if they don’t they will ask before making any recommendations as to what method of study is best.

Risk and cost of failure

How important to you is passing, or passing as soon as possible? It could be a false economy to go with the provider who suggests the course can be covered in 10 weeks at a cost of £1,000 when another suggests 15 weeks at £1,500. The longer course with the higher price could well be good value for money if you pass first time. Equally when the stakes are high you don’t want to make a mistake,  consider something like eye surgery, would you go to the cheapest provider where the risk of getting it wrong could be life changing.  Of course expensive does not always mean value for money. You will need to do some homework first. Below is some advice as to what to look for when choosing a provider before you part with any money.

What to look for in a course provider

Fundamentally it’s about trust and confidence in the provider. Education is not a commodity, it’s not homogenous, it’s personal and too important to get wrong

Here are a few things to look out for and questions to ask.

  • Experience and quality of the Teachers/Lecturers – having a stable and experienced lecture team is an indication of quality. Ask how the college ensures their staff are up to date, do they have a formal training scheme? What research credentials do they have?
  • Long term player – How long has the organisation been in existence, ask them what their long term strategy is for learning or at least what they think the future might hold.
  • Where do they rank in league tables – maybe they have industry awards or accreditation by external bodies.
  • Investment in the future and level of innovation – what do the premises look like, are they well maintained? What technologies have they introduced recently?
  • What are the range of different study options (length of course/F2F contact time etc) and levels of personalisation – for you to have the best course the provider should be able to offer some degree of personalised learning.
  • Ask if you can try before you buy – What have you got to lose they can only say no. Oh and ask them how easy it is to transfer to other courses and get your money back if you’re not happy.
  • And finally one of the most useful ways in making any decision is to ask friends/colleagues what they think or experiences have been, and don’t forget to check them out on the social media sites.

Conclusion

There is a lot more to this debate and the topic is certainly worthy of another blog. Value for money is a big question in education. I have not for example even mentioned the cost of education in the context of employability and student debt. Nor which subjects have the highest employability statistics etc.

The purpose of this blog was to highlight the complexity of choosing a provider and to give some advice as to what to look for.

In summary, clarify exactly what you want from your course provider before you start looking, ask some of the questions above and dependant on the answers you get make your decision. And if all goes to plan you will you end up with the right provider, at the right price and so great value for money.

PS Happy New Year everyone – I think as far as learning and exams are concerned 2015 is going to be as interesting and as uncertain as 2014. I am looking forward to it.

 

And the cow said – MOOOOCS

MOOOOCIn October I decided I would find out first hand exactly what it was like to study online so I joined a MOOC. For those that don’t know what these are, a Massive Open Online Course is a free or at least normally free online course that has the capacity to have thousands of students in the same virtual classroom.

In fact only last month the British Council launched its first MOOC on English language attracting over 100,000 students. In essence a MOOC provides “education” at scale, accessible globally for free, and what could be wrong with that? Well in essence nothing, having a well educated society not only helps with social mobility but as has been well documented adds significant economic value.

Problems with MOOCS

But as you can imagine not everyone is happy, most of the concerns centre around quality.

If MOOCS are so good why is it that despite the large numbers of students enrolling there are very few, around 8% who actually complete the course.

Is this the result of poor instructional design, the fact that some MOOCS have very little student/ teacher engagement and are simply a series of videos linked together with reference to materials available elsewhere on the web. Is it because no one person is accountable for the students, there is no “teacher” to motivate the student if they fall behind. And due to the scale, feedback has to be automated or assessed by peers who are clearly not experts.

Well it might be all of the above and the course completion rate is clearly of concern yet some would argue that having a less teacher centric course is exactly what you need for students to develop a much deeper understanding. This is something *George Siemem’s argues.

Making sense of the chaos is what learning is all about, if teachers plot the route it reduces the value of what is being or could be learned.”

 “The great thing about MOOCS is that the learning does not end when the course ends, because the students have built their own communities, the learning becomes life long.”

M+O+O+C+S

People talk about MOOCs in so many different ways, in fact the name itself can be confusing when trying to understand exactly what a MOOC is.

  • Massive – A MOOC works on a platform that enables thousands of students to see and hear the same thing at the same time. The technology behind this is impressive and using one tutor to deliver the course enables the most to be made of the expertise.
  • Open – its open to anyone, there are no prior learning requirements. It is also open in the context of being free, and the learning not being restricted to the views of one person, the community are also teachers.
  • Online – it is online but is not what some would class as an online course. An online course unlike a MOOC would be instructionally designed to ensure the learning is consistent with the learning outcomes and incorporates the latest developments from the field of learning science.
  • Course – It has a cohort, a subject matter and a beginning, middle and end. But as outlined above, at its simplest it could be little more than linked video with no overall instruction and some would argue this is not a course.

A MOOC on one level is the next generation text book

Listen to Anant Agarwas on TED 

Providers

It is important to say that as MOOCs are so new, the first ones established around 2011, it is hard to pin them down as they are constantly changing. But if you are interested here is a note of the key providers.

  • Future Learn – owned by Britain’s Open University Offers MOOCs from many UK Universities. The newest of the MOOCs with approximately 750,000 plus users.
  • Coursera has around 10 million users and is by far the biggest, a for-profit founded by two Stanford University Professors.
  • edX  have around 3 million users, a not for profit MOOC founded by MIT and Harvard University.
  • Udacity have around 1.6 million users.  A for -profit backed by Sebastian Thun (co founder) and two Venture capitalist. It is currently repositioning its offering to be more vocational, targeted at professionals. Listen to Peter Norvig early observations in 2012 on TED. Peter taught one of the first classes with Sebastian Thun on artificial intelligence with over 100,000 online.

My MOOC – conclusions

edX

My edX course with MIT

The course I chose was with one of the leading provider’s edX and is called Design and Development of Educational Technology. Okay not for everyone but so far I have found it very impressive.

The course was delivered over 6 weeks. It consisted of video lectures with a designated tutor Professor Eric Kloper introducing many of them himself.

There were links to further reading and sessions requiring a hands on approach, in some instances “playing” with software to find out how it works. In addition there were tasks and projects to complete, all recognised by the awarding of a certificate at the end. And yes it was free. Like my students however I have already fallen behind, but I do plan to complete the programme as so far I have found it both engaging and rewarding.

But what of the future – What we can say is that some MOOCS have responded to the criticisms and are now delivering first class courses to thousands of students, online and for free. But MOOCS are still evolving; blending MOOCs with traditional face to face courses is gaining in popularity for example.

There is however still the big question as to how they are funded, and for me this is about quality. Anyone can put information that is already freely available online in a thoughtless way and leave it for the students to curate. But a well thought through MOOC takes considerable time and skill to design and deliver. This is of course no different to an online or classroom course. A good course needs good people and they cost money. But I see no reason why MOOCs can’t charge, I would gladly have paid for mine. The cost would be low given the volumes, say £1 – £500 but the reach would still be global. And the monies would enable the providers to continually invest in order to deliver the best courses possible.

Bill Gates talks about MOOCS well worth watching, its only 4 minutes “the information has been in the textbook for hundreds of years….online does not enhance knowledge…” 

Ps I promise no more animal pictures next month.

*Author of Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age