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)!



Personae gratae

A group of us who are involved in developing the future learning system plans for the Open University are using a range of techniques taken from “User Centred Design” and User Experience (UX) to help us create the future systems for the OU and also to explain the complexity of the systems developments to senior management in a way that is easily understood and powerful. I wanted to share some of these techniques that we’re using without going into any of the detail which may be business sensitive.

man with hammer image

First of all what we’re doing is using a combination of Personas (some people suggest personae as the plural but I’ll use personas to describe these) and scenarios. There are many websites and blog posts going back years which talk about the power of personas and scenarios to design and development. JISC have used it within their design workshops and they’re used in different ways by different groups, for example here’s a post on “Web Design from scratch” by Ben Hunt which describes their use in design.

We’re using these in a slightly different way than for design but rather to describe areas of functionality to be developed to meet particular needs. In the persona development we adopted a range of persona’s that were created by the Online Communications team to describe target users for OU websites.

Here’s an example snippet of one of the persona’s to help explain them…

Age/personal:  18, lives in Glenrothes with his Mum
Job:  Works in Dixon’s part-time
Education:  Highers
Studying aim: Degree in Computing/IT
Online likes:  Interaction, multimedia,
customisation and iPhone apps
Web games, chats, texts; surfs fast, but without


We use a set of personas to describe a range of target users and they test the system through a typical use case. We also have some high level scenarios to describe the depth of a particular system in supporting users from end-to-end. Scenarios in our case describe the environmental elements not possible easily through personas, so our scenarios are focused on direction setting and understanding where the OU should be going to meet the demands of new learners. for example we have scenarios based around informal learning becoming prevalent and another scenario around the need for key skills.

Personas are powerful because they:-

  • Allow systems to be developed to meet specific user types
  • Afford consistency of development across different systems
  • Are a useful tool for describing how people will use the services
  • Are useful for testing and benchmarking services against requirement, i.e. are useful for usability and accessibility testing.
Scenarios are powerful to us because they:-
  • Describe the full end-to-end functionality of a system
  • Take socio-economic and other environmental factors into account
  • Set direction of development
  • Describe the strategic value and business benefits

We are using these to map through to a set of “Roadmaps” which describe how we intend to deliver the changes. The roadmaps, programmes and projects within it are along the lines of the JISC P3 model which itself is a variant of PRINCE 2 methodology and therefore well established. The creative bit is how we’re describing this through the combination of personas and scenarios. We have been through this process once before with a programme called RAP (Roadmap Acceleration Programme) where we used a world cafe approach to gathering requirements (see my previous post on Future Learning Systems ). We used the user testing sessions to “validate” the personas against real people to ensure that they’re accurate and complete and the testing informs the system development, this was particularly useful to establish what works in the less clearly defined areas of the roadmap such as the development of Google gadgets through the JISC DOULS project.

The next steps are to build in the marketing knowledge that we have received through consultancy reports on segmentation which can help us plan out which personas we particularly want to target, and  secondly to get areas of the OU to adopt sub-set of the personas and ensure that they refresh them to keep them relevant. We already have some success with this since Student Services have adopted a persona approach to describe the “targeted services” which they want to provide through StudentHome the OU Student portal.

I can’t stress enough though how important it is to have a single coherent set of OU personas. The power comes from system developments being mapped holistically i.e. when values are shared across the organisation about meeting specific user needs and creating, buying or customising systems to meet those needs.

Chief Information Officer

We’re currently recruiting a brand new CIO post for the Open University. This is a major leap forward in thinking at the OU and the emphasis of the post is to provide the cohesion between the technology areas of the orgnisation and to manage the complexity to meet business needs (my interpretation – the recruitment agency use much longer more business savvy words)

Historically the OU has been like many other universities and has had ‘ogranic growth’ of information services with a number of faculties leading the way and then some of the technologies getting adopted more widely and then becoming part of a centrally run service, some services from the central support units also get used more widely and some student technologies  get adopted by staff so there are many different technologies and service in place at any one time.

In the recent past there has been a push to centralisation and control and AACS (the Academic and Administrative Computing Service) at the OU has had a difficult job of managing that without having any direct authority to remove other services in place in other parts of the University. AACS also started out as supporting just the admin services with the academic services within another unit. The expanding to support academic systems has also not been without problems. AACS haven’t had influence (or sometimes awareness) over what other units develop for themselves and so there is a multitude of systems with overlapping or duplicated functionality.

The issues always tend to end up as a tension between providing a balance between control (security) and access (openness).  We generally want openness in our services to students, with ‘widening participation’, ‘freemium’ and ‘OER’ being the flavours of the day. We generally need tight control and security of our administrative services and our business critical systems to ensure that we can guarantee business continuity.

There’s also a need to ‘move up the value chain’ and leave the low level service provision to others. The ideas of commoditization and the consuming and adapting rather than building it all ourselves approach of the past and the move to the cloud… (I’m simplifying here but Simon Wardley explains it better than I can)

The answer seems to be the creation of a post which sits at a very high level and is seen (at least theoretically) to be above any single technology area – to be a director of information services and a broker between the different parts. It’s also someone who reports to our ‘Vice Chancellors Executive’ so therefore someone who can explain strategy and can push back at some of the views in order to build a service that meets the future needs of the University.

I think this is a very positive step for the orgnisation. The post is not only to align development but also to think about agile approaches to delivery and to manage a path to facilitate growth of services from research through to operational (where appropriate), from single unit to multi unit to enterprise, from centrally through to distributed, to facilitate cloud-based or shared solutions. It’s to act as the business architect. A role sorely needed.