Ringing the changes in HE

I’ve been working with a group of colleagues across the Open University in a very collegiate spirit to develop a coherent Vision and Plan for Learning and Teaching. We are also developing a vision for our leadership in digital innovation which is complimentary. We are doing this at a time of unprecedented change for UK Higher Education, not simply because of the HE Bill and TEF and the changes those bring with them (N.B. despite the OU not entering TEF this year we still have a lot of work to do lobbying for changes, supporting the four nations agenda and national policies and preparing for the time when we will enter TEF which involves collecting and interpreting data to better differentiate part-time learners, their prior experience/level of knowledge and their learning gain) but also the wider changes resulting from the UK’s exit from the EU and implications from changes in U.S. policy. This makes it challenging to construct a vision that is both grounded but is also fixed on the far horizon and so can guide actions for transformation.

As far as Innovation is concerned we’ve been looking to the Educause “Building a Culture of Innovation in HE: Design and Practice for Leaders” as a tool to help us identify areas to prioritize. There are a series of near horizon and far horizon goals that we wish to achieve through this process. Near horizon goals aim to improve the current system of learning and teaching at the OU, while far horizon goals simultaneously build the conditions from which a new system can emerge (figure 1).

Figure 1 – Shifting from Improvement to Innovation (extracted from Educause “Building a Culture of Innovation in Higher Education: Design and Practice for Leaders”)










There is element of crystal ball gazing to all of this endeavour (although some market research and academic research is also involved). I was taken with this recent post by Joshua Kim for Inside Higher Ed which resonates with some of my feelings around HE. It’s called Why Our Higher Ed Transformation Crowd Should Read ‘The Upstarts’ and emphasizes that the antecedents for transformative change are rarely understood in advance. We can create the conditions but we cannot imagine the impact (or not).

All this work has come to the attention of others in high places and so I am having my own personal transformative change. I’m leaving my role as Head of Incubation at the end of this month to take up a new role as Head of Strategy and Policy (including a continued responsibility for co-ordination of incubation/innovation). I’m going to miss the Learning and Teaching Development team which includes the Learning Design team that I’ve been managing for the past few months, they are great people doing fantastic but hugely undervalued work.

This change consequently means an alignment and co-ordination of the Learning Design and TEL-Design (Technology Enhanced Learning Design) teams to have a coherent organisational approach and vision for Learning Design and clear ownership and responsibility for aspects of LD under Rebecca Galley (Head of TEL). We are also defining the homes for enabling elements for LD including data which is becoming increasingly valuable for decision making.

From next month I’ll be managing the Strategic Planning and Policy team. I will also be moving away from the academic side of business and from the Institute of Educational Technology to focus on this new role within the Learning and Teaching Innovation Portfolio. I’m also in my second week of the Masters course in Online and Distance Education to better understand the theory around what I’m doing. It’s a seriously well constructed course and I’m really enjoying my tutor group chats. I think I’m becoming slightly addicted to this online learning thing but I’ll see if I remain enthusiastic after my first exam!

Crucially though despite all the changes I’m  keeping a hot desk in the Jennie Lee building so that I can continue to network with academic colleagues (..and steal their coffee and biscuits)!



Design for Life

I’ve finally worked some Manics lyrics into my blog post..

design for life - Manic Street Preachers

Why the title Design for Life? – Well there is a very good reason why I’ve not been blogging these past three months. I’m currently on secondment to the big production engine of the Open University (Learning and Teaching Solutions) and heading up the development of a new area there called TEL (Technology-Enhanced Learning). This new sub-unit is responsible for the aspects of Learning Design as we apply it within the Open University context, so we’re referring to this as “TEL Design”.

Learning Design in it’s purest form is technology and pedagogy neutral but within TEL design we are seeking to to use evidence based approaches to the production and presentation of modules so that they are designed appropriately considering learning outcomes (LOs), tuition/support approach, assessment and the overarching student experience. The OU has already being doing this for some time through the Learning Design team in IET who have been working with module teams on activity planning and module mapping processes to ensure that a sound pedagogic approach is being considered which is appropriate for the level of study and disciplinary context. This work however needs to be scaled up as we have perhaps in the order of 100-150 modules being refreshed every year from a provision of around 600 modules which form the OU curriculum. I’m therefore simplifying what is a very complex activity, working with module teams to turn these sound pedagogic approaches into practical module/course designs suitable for each disciplinary context which form part of a coherent student journey and consider appropriate use of technologies.

Learning Design Diagram

So tackling each area of my role:

Evidence-based Practice

Within TEL we have a group of around 20 very seasoned practitioners in module production or aspects of teaching, either within or outside the OU. This group have excellent experience in what works, is appropriate for design of online learning activity and which enhances the student experience. i.e. lots of empirical knowledge.

magnifying glass image

(a) We are building a library of examples of best practice

(b) We are establishing, through a survey, the evidence bases that are currently being used within the OU to establish what is “best practice”. (we have huge amounts of of evidence to draw upon – see our Learning Analytic colleagues such as Doug Clow for details of that work!).

(c) We are considering where evidence is needed and of what type. For example in some cases a “deep dive” approach may be more suitable. We are working with colleagues in IET on projects exploring analytics and evidence to support decision making for both improving design during production and also for in presentation adaption and improvement.

(d) We are also considering how much to rely on phronesis or discretionary practitioner judgement. There is a lot of interesting literature in this area, I particularly enjoyed the McNamara Fallacy and the problem with Numbers in Education article by Carl Hendrick on the dangers of using data for decision making on very complex models.

Scholarship, Development and Training

I’ve been working on a development plan for “TEL Design” practitioners. I’ve been co-ordinating work on this, looking at job descriptions both internally and externally and mapping the skills and competencies into a framework which also matches to the UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning (UKPSF) from the Higher Education Academy. During March 2015 I released a questionnaire to TEL staff to ask then to rate themselves against areas of this framework. We are currently creating plans to meet these needs which will be through:

(a) Identifying the most reflection imageurgently needed skills and competencies required by the majority of people and consequently running workshops and training sessions to up-skill our staff, for example Grainne Conole ran a workshop in March for us on “Strategies for designing and evaluating effective learning activities”.

(b) Exploring what specific skills and competencies are required by individuals and creating personal development plans (PDPs) to meet those needs

(c) Using practice-based approaches to improve competency, for example mentoring and encouraging staff to engage in HEA fellowship programme through the OU OpenPAD scheme as a method to encourage reflection and improve practice.

(d) Developing a scholarly culture within the unit, this includes encouraging TEL staff to be involved in publishing and attending events relevant to their practice and to recognize and reward achievement in areas of specialism and knowledge within the TEL group.

Strategy and Culture

This is by far the biggest challenge as we are having to carve out a shape for the design process within the OU’s current production methodology and management processes.

training pants image

The good news is that we are doing this at a time when the curriculum systems are being refreshed, when the OU curriculum itself is being refreshed through a curriculum: fit for the future programme and the Learning and Teaching Vision and Plan 2025 provides us with imperative to establish the evidence based design approach within production and presentation. I’m also located within a unit which is currently going through a re-focus process so the design processes can be considered within an overhaul of the whole production life-cycle processes to make them more efficient and effective. In order to make this stick we need a cultural change and that’s perhaps my biggest challenge. OU module production has become very risk averse and procedural and the people are necessarily used to that safety blanket of knowing what’s coming up six months before they need to start work, things need to change here and the ability to be agile and adaptive is increasingly important.

We are doing this successfully in MOOC design where the timescales are shorter and the methods used are bespoke and usually outside of regular process, the challenge now is to make that the norm rather than the exception.


I don’t have all the answers here but I have a number of ideas which I’m currently exploring.  I’m also looking, with my colleagues in TEL and LD, at the activity structure for the TEL Design workshops and I’m considering a model which I want to share for discussion. More on that in my next blog post.