Posted by: Gillian | October 30, 2012

Hens are like people

One can be really kind to chickens in huge well-monitored (intensively monitored) sheds and produce quality-assured eggs or meat or fertiliser with great efficiency.  It’s also possible to have a few chicken and know them really well. There’s the hen that is determined to get itself into trouble through too much curiosity, the one that hates to get its feet wet in early morning dew-laden grass, the one that is utterly desperate for a dust-bath after being confined in a much-moved pen for a few days, the one that hasn’t a clue how to perch because it’s mum never taught it. Tending to the needs of each results in much better eggs – fact. The question in education of adults is how to make that individualisation work effectively and efficiently. For HE institutions, the question is a huge and expensive one.  For individuals, the key is to look for places with an accredited track-record but also a history of strong market responsiveness in terms of how and when programmes are delivered.  Core content knowledge may be added to but essentially varies very little. Application varies a lot. Readiness to apply almost takes us back to the hens and knowing what suits whom and when….

Posted by: Gillian | October 9, 2012

Future of higher education

Watching the Emirates Air Line, installed for the 2012 Olympics, shuttling back and forth over the Thames yesterday, the BILD‘s continuing professional development workshop Learning and Development, looking to the future it was hard not to think much more widely about higher education.  Yesterday also saw the start of a new, global MOOC on the Current and Future State of Education in which some of the first week’s readings draw on the well-publicised debate about the value of going to university and of university education. To me, the arguments in the two events are but two sides of the same large coin.

Once past compulsory education, people in a fast-evolving world with a huge rise in excellent online courses available from China and India as well as the Occident, global businesses and greater access to ever more powerful data and communications technologies are not only going to have to continue consciously to learn new skills but they are going to want to do so in flexible formats.  There’s not much point in going to university for three or four or five years solely to learn a technology developed three years before that and possibly obsolete before the course even starts.  There is, however, much to be said for networked learning, possibly based around universities that will undoubtedly still have buildings – the amount of buildings seemingly required by virtual universities never ceases to amaze.  Jay Cross wrote back in 2008 of Learnscapes and that theme was picked up in the BILD workshop.  Adults, it seems to me, will still be alumni of some form of HE establishment, they will still have professional bodies offering and requiring continuing professional development, they will probably still have HR departments and training managers. In short, there will be plenty to give comfort to those who want to believe there is no need to change anything because ‘the best universities have existed for centuries’. But it will not be the same.

A knowledge economy requires a knowledge society if it is not to return to subsistence farming.   If the learner/adult is placed at the centre of their own learning universe, they can pull information from whatever sources are available (academic, professional, social) as and when they need it and by disseminating their knowledge, sharing it with others, getting feedback, they will gain expertise which may be rewarded with diplomas, money, social approval.  The individual becomes a lifelong knowledge seeker rather than a knowledge receptacle. Some indiviudals already are lifelong knowledge seekers but many more ‘have done’ with learning as soon as possible or, worse, get told that universities are only for full-time students or only for the under-40s or only for those who do not have a degree.  The boundaries need to blur and people need the permission as well as the skills to do pik-n-mix and just-in-time learning.  The permission can be fixed with political will: the skills will need to be fostered from primary school onwards with the generation brought up to progress from one online standardised test to another perhaps being in for a particular tough time but once the need is widely acknowledged,  coaches, trainers and facilitators can focus.

Universities, of course, can help by being more flexible and some are trying to do so but society as a whole needs to shift in its understanding of universities so that conversations become more equal.  As I discussed with a stand visitor at a conference two weeks ago and have discussed with others before that, a ‘free’ communications system (for example) within a business that is only ‘free’ because it is supported by Year2 undergraduates and one PhD student with a thesis to write is not a good deal, especially if the system is incompatible with other systems also in use within the business that do not require so much support.

Posted by: Gillian | September 25, 2012

Plagiarism for beginners

At the start of the university year, it is easy to get very confused.  Someone demands an essay or a presentation on a topic and you just Google or Wikipedia for relevant info because you really, really want to get it right.  And that’s research, isn’t it?  Well, yes it’s research (with a sniff if being very academic) but what do you do with it?  Rule 1 in the anti-plagiarism list: tell people where you found the info. Rule 2: don’t just repeat the info – tell people what it means in a particular context that you yourself have defined.  So, ‘Person X says…. and situation Y is, so I think…..’  It’s a step change between repeating knowledge and developing it and university is there to develop knowledge.

For basic checking of your own texts there are free and low-cost services available at (the full form of which which may well be available in your university) and  Note the first counts ‘words’ and the second counts ‘characters’ when setting prices.

Posted by: Gillian | July 31, 2012

Good and bad universities

A recent article in the Telegraph suggests young people are studying subjects no employer wants at bad universities. This begs at least three questions:

  1. Are employers asking universities for short-term skills or sustainably educated members of the workforce ?
  2. What is a bad university?
  3. Do good universities only offer subjects with immediate employment prospects?

1 Skills or education

When employers complain about an illiterate, innumerate workforce, the blame should be placed much earlier in the system than with universities .  Universities may find themselves forced into remedial teaching of essay writing and basic statistics but that is no more their core role than it is the core role of an eventual employer.  At a higher level, transferable skills (e.g. research) or subject specific skills are part of university education but it is a struggle to think of any that cannot be acquired outside in the workplace or independently.  So what makes a university different?

University is not only about skills acquisition, competencies and learning outcomes; it is about being part of a learning community, seeking new information, testing ideas with others, selecting and fitting knowledge to new purposes.  This need not be ‘within the city walls’ as many universities used to require but, given the requisite technical and social skills, can be within a widely dispersed global community.  The important differentiator is not the geography but the attitude: education includes skills; skills alone are not education.  The two tie together in the lifelong learning agenda where the aim is to keep adults engaged with higher education in some – usually discontinuous – form literally “for life”.

2 Bad universities

In countries such as the UK with a robust central accreditation system for institutions allowed to use the word ‘university’, there should be no such thing as a bad university as all institutions have to meet a range of minimum teaching, content, assessment and management standards. Still, we all know the social pressure to attend some universities in preference to others and many know that a course in (say) law is more highly regarded from university X than university Y. There are also universities that excel and are first choice in one subject area but are ‘last resort’ for others.  There is also the persistent belief that universities that offer predominantly vocational degrees rather than traditional humanities and pure research are somehow, if not ‘bad’, at least not ‘good’ universities.  Whether or not such different institutions should both be called ‘university’ is a different matter: they are all universities and they are subject to the same accreditation procedures.

As universities merge and take over previously independent colleges, it can be hard to decide which reputation is the more important: do standards rise within a particular programme or do the specialists that attracted people to the independent college all leave, taking the value of the programme with them?  Further confusion is caused by ‘good’ research universities that subcontract some courses to for-profit entities (both on- and off -campus).  Do such deals improve the perceptions of the for-profit or decrease the value of the ‘good’ university or do we trust the boards of both to making a deal that brings the best of both together for the benefit of students?

3 Employment prospects

Individual university marketing campaigns, league tables, national and international economic reports all publish employment figures related to particular qualifications and at a national level these can be extremely important: how many tens of thousands of psychologists does Spain really need, for example?  Crude percentages of graduates of a particular course in employment one year later are, however, of little value.  Such figures need to be compared across institutions in very similar subject areas as well as over decades and against other subject areas.  A degree in Modern History may have less obvious career routes than Computer Science but a glance at most computing science syllabi will show some programming languages have all but disappeared from them over the last decade – and that cannot be unconnected to the high level of skill-based continuing education among computer scientists.  University does not get ‘done’ once and for all no matter what your subject discipline.

At an individual level, however, the social context becomes more important. To say that one goes to university at 18 because otherwise it is impossible to get a good job in later life is simply wrong: there are many flexible routes into higher education and there are now more non-traditional UK university students than there are traditional 18-21 year-olds.  On the other hand, being part of a learning community as set out above is a social construct and cultivating that mindset as part of a rite of passage is a key benefit of traditionally-timed education.   Many an employer says they wants graduates who can think, are flexible and have a team-focused work ethic but that job-specific skills are best taught by the employer themselves.  Yet finances, family circumstances and personal preference mean that the traditional higher education pathway is not right for very many people. Learning accountancy within one of the major accountancy firms and ‘topping up’ to a degree later or working on a checkout and doing NVQs with an aim to eventually taking an MBA simply alters the order in which a rounded education is acquired.

What matters

By taking a longer term, more holistic view of higher education, what matters is not so much whether a university is good or bad but the ways in which the sector engages with employers and adults to make learning possible.  What they offer and how they offer it may not lead to immediate employability but it should develop inquiry, creativity and a love of learning.  The major gap in the market, it seems to me, is not between traditional university students and employment requirements, but between those who have lost interest in learning and the opportunities that are available to continue learning in some form.

Posted by: Gillian | July 17, 2012

University in Society


Sighisoara street during UNISO2012


UNISO exists to promote both the concept and realities of universities in society and the conference in Sighisoara last week drew together experts in international qualifications frameworks and programme design to discuss the vision and practicalities of a learning society.  For me, some of the key points were:

  1. A reminder that the EU made a commitment in 2008 to education and training for ‘citizens’ rather than ‘students/learners’ (Jean-Philippe Restoueix, Council for Europe)
  2. The greening of the economy will have an increasing impact on university provision (Alain Nicolas, Université de Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines)
  3. Modernisation of universities is not only a necessity (Anna Soos, University of Cluj-Napoca) but can follow a variety of forms as suggested by a number of participants. Some of these forms were exclusive, high-end programmes and others open-access but all were looking for high levels of attainment.
  4. Educational outcomes are more relevant to a progressive, sustainable society than learning outcomes.
  5. In considering use of technologies such as apps or widgets, designers need to place more emphasis on the type of learner and the context of their learning (Jean Uebersfeld, “Pierre et Marie Curie” University, Paris VI).
Posted by: Gillian | May 23, 2012

Doing, thinking and Qualifications respect

What are universities for and are they worth your money? The UK’s Radio4 recently discussed this but a) it was on late and b) I’m not sure it got to the root of the issue.  Carl Lygo rightly pointed out that the idea that universities are about ‘young people’ is, in his words, ‘just wrong’.  In my view, assorted open universities, military grants and online courses would not exist if that were the case. However, universities do have something of an identity crisis and those trying to figure out whether or not it is worth going are often keenly aware of this. Should universities turn out thinkers who just possibly ‘may’ turn out to be life-changing people like the first university quantum physicists or should they be qualifications factories that provide do-ers with badges?  Your choice because there are both varieties out there *but* looking at why this choice exists and thinking through the options, there are ways to get the best of all worlds.

In the bad old days of my early career, there were competenc(i)es complete with day long seminars arguing about the use of the (i) and a battle royal about proving one could do something once or repeatedly or never – but, in the ‘never’ case one could describe how to do it at length and with footnotes.  In the UK, this argument centred around NVQs (national vocational qualifications). Unfortunately, this argument erupted about the time that online learning started to become widely available. It was, and still is, far easier to give yes/no answers on a computer than it it is to assess shades of doubt or possibility or prediction. Some people still think online courses are stuck in this yes/no era that – by definition – means the knowledge is already public and you are just meeting the standard of what others have already done. This is sad and unnecessary but does still exist.

The even older argument is that degrees are about knowledge, not doing. I once asked a globally renowned university what they wanted their MBAs to be able to do to distinguish them from the rest. A bemused head thought a bit and then said: “Think!” Given the number of MBAs hitting the market each year, an MBA who can only think risks creating organisations of chocolate teapots. Or, to broaden and update the idea, undergraduate courses that rely on reflective portfolios might need a reality check.

People talk about the difference between discipline and subject knowledge. (Academics: see Jan Parker’s paper.) In reality, this means the difference between mixing with other people trying to be ‘the best’ and take things forward and being one of a crowd trying to know a set amount of ‘things’ already decided.

Communities of practice and connective knowledge are ideas/terms that sound new – but probably are truly ancient – but they do not necessarily give degrees and certificates. Life being what it is, people need certificates because HR departments put them on their checklists and battling the system is rarely going to pay the bills.

So: how can one be a thinking, working adult and not only get the bits of paper but also be respected in education/academic terms? It is do-able and I’m not into advertising.  As broad principles:

  • Avoid anything with purely online assessments (online essays are different)
  • Look for  assessment set by ‘sessions’ or ‘registration groups’
  • Require discussion groups
  • Require tutor/facilitator/supervisor/group contact (the more the better)
  • Require ID at time of assessment.  That’s as valid on-campus as online.  That may sound silly but you need to know that you and all your peers are real people sitting real tests.



Posted by: Gillian | March 22, 2012

Discontinuous learning is more than a Smart car

Are universities fit for your purpose? Not theirs, yours. Universities can look after themselves pretty well (cf Siemens, 2010). The question is, can you pick from universities’ courses to suit your life and learning needs? The answer may well be ‘no’ because universities, for all their efforts to supply courses in various formats still tend to expect registration and a pre-determined assessment.  It’s like buying a Smart car: you can change the colour of the bodywork panels to any combination you like but the chassis remains the same size and the body the same height. Yet the need (sometimes even the desire) to keep learning on our own terms are ever stronger as the context in which we live and work changes. To give that some perspective, the Anderson Group has calculated that the risk to business of a changing business landscape is twice the risk of an ageing workforce so everyone, no matter what their seniority, needs to keep learning. So, what can you do?

The first thing to note is that universities are aware of the problem.  Experiments in ‘giving away’ content may mean that you can access the knowledge, provided you know where to look for it and are confident enough to sift the bad from the good. Through massive open online courses (MOOCs), online or offline self-help groups or office workshops, you may be able to access peer support and even tuition but two major stumbling blocks remain:

  1. The overall road map
  2. Portable accreditation.

Road map

Making learning suit your purpose means you will have some idea of what you want at least in the short-term but fitting this with a standard university (or professional) qualification pathway can be less than transparent.  Also, your own requirements will change simply because life changes. It is easy to forget what you ‘know about’ and even easier to fail to connect ideas.  To keep some overview of what you have learned and help join up the pieces, mindmaps are a huge help – especially if you can embed hyperlinks in the nodes. (VUE is a good one for this.)  Widgets are also a great help in sifting information and I’m trying to collect a list of good learning widgets to share so if anyone wants to contribute, please let me know.

Portable accreditation

Your road map can be as flexible as you want but if you want accreditation, it helps to collect the evidence and your mindmap is a useful basis for an eportfolio that you then slice and dice as necessary for job applications or university qualifications.  This, however, still leaves the big gap between what may turn into a huge portfolio of in-depth learning and what can gain formal academic recognition from a respected university. First degrees and post-graduate degrees ‘by portfolio’ are extremely rare but partial (often, very partial!) accreditation is more widespread. The trouble is, you have to apply to each institution individually and are likely to get different answers from every one.  Help is on the horizon but it is slow in coming.  The TEPL (technology-enhanced professional learning) keynote this week heard a strong plea from the respected professor, Thomas Reeves, that HE learning design should use multiple methods of assessment that would accommodate self-directed learners. Some programmes in which I have had a hand do this but there are not enough out there. Keep asking: the economy is with you!

Posted by: Gillian | March 14, 2012

Widget development competition

Today has been spent in Milton Keynes discussing widgets that would make learning and development more simple, less time-wasting or more useful.  The ROLE project, set up by a European Union-funded consortium in which the BILD plays a part, has set up a competition as part of its dissemination strategy so that people who have an idea for a widget can outline their requirements a, if selected, may then have a ROLE project specialist assigned to them to help them use the ROLE widget SDK and develop their idea. In May, the top three widgets so created will win prizes. The idea is to get from a day of this:

ROLE workshop





to a series of genuinely useful learning and development oriented widgets.  If interested, use the ROLE link above and join in.

I’m also looking to compile a list of useful professional and higher education L&D widgets (from any source) so if anyone wishes to contribute to that list, please let me know.  If there is a charge attached to using the widget, they will have to be very useful indeed or very cheap if I am to list them. 🙂


Posted by: Gillian | February 21, 2012

University is not a rite of passage – or is it

I’ve just responded on Twitter to George Siemens:

RT @gsiemens European universities: re-form or die: <Yes: but rite of passage or rite of discontinuous brain?

This is key to so much of the current UK HE debate.  I’ve written elsewhere about whether universities in the UK, at undergraduate level, are for academic development or whether they are social buffer zones between home and work: what happens away stays away and no-one need be embarrassed.  Making the big assumption that academic enquiry informs the interest of many undergraduates (and I’m sure there really are many out there who already know they wish to be the chief researcher in their chosen field), it still remains to ask if the standard ladder of in at 18 and out via a PhD somewhere around age 30 is the right model.

People enter HE for a huge variety of reasons and hanging on to the idea of the chance of a well-paying job is obviously one of them but if the jobs are not there (cue any set of current employment statistics for university leavers in general), then retaining intake across all disciplines is not to be taken for granted.

In addition, there are many older people with degrees and/or senior professional qualifications and years of work experience who are in positions where research is required and they know, more or less, how to frame it. Many are very successful in their research and if work would let them get the prestigious letters after their name that full-time on-campus grads can achieve for similar input, then they would be very pleased.  In theory, the Bologna process and professional postgrad qualifications allow this.  In practice, I am still searching for a single university with a high reputation that can cope with someone turning up in any Faculty on a Monday with a work-based research idea they are willing to take forward and having a confirmed research-based degree space by Friday that is likely to simultaneously deliver results in a commercially viable timespan.

Yes, there are LOTS of caveats in that – but that’s the vision.  Anyone up to meet the challenge?

Posted by: Gillian | February 20, 2012

Research – work or qualification

Does one need to go to university in order to be able to do useful research?  The recent furore in the UK about the appointment of Les Ebdon as a university access ‘tsar’ has highlighted the perception that in order to get a good job, one needs a university education.  Much of Friday’s discussion at the BILD was on two key themes:

  1. The need for rapid and reliable research in modern educational methods
  2. The leadership and entrepreneurial ability of the Young Pioneers who, for one reason or another, came out of traditional K-12 education and have survived, even to a very humbling extent thrived,  adversity and gone on into productive lives that include education.

Much of education is geared to getting things right first time and passing tests, as Jack Hassard recently described in Education Week.  If Luke had followed that, he would never be a successful CEO of a £1m+ charity at the age of 16. Bloom’s taxonomy, is a very useful learning design tool but as  Scott Mcleod pointed out in his blog , it is explicitly not intended as an obligatory sequential process starting with knowing facts and ending with creating.

For many, schools and universities do an admirable, developmental job and if that were not the case, it is unlikely that there would be such competition to gain admittance to the best research universities around the globe.  There remains, however, the question: is the traditional university research model the best for all circumstances? In fast-moving fields it makes more sense for the research to be carried out in companies where the results can be exploited before technology is out of date or while papers languish in peer review. Yet the greatest experience of developing hypotheses, actively looking for the flaws and conducting adequately controlled tests lies within higher-level formal education. Applied doctorates (e..g. Ed.D, Sc.D) and part-time research-Masters degrees would seem to be the obvious answer to providing access to academic rigour while simultaneously allowing commercial exploitation and academic accreditation of the individual doing the work. Yet, how many of these programmes are there that allow people to arrive at the university door on a Monday with a research requirement in hand and start by Friday? I have searched and have not found one – but do let me know if you know of a properly (nationally/regionally) accredited institution that  does have that flexibility and commitment to applied research.

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