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All posts by Manuel Leon Urrutia

FLAN meeting in UPF Barcelona

The theme: educator experience

The 11th FutureLearn Academic Network (FLAN) meeting was held in Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF), Barcelona. UPF has been a FutureLearn partner since 2015, and as for January 2017 it contributes to the platform portfolio with five MOOCs. Drs. Manel JimĂŠnez (director of the Center for Learning Innovation & Knowledge) and Davinia HernĂĄndez-Leo (head of the Interactive Technologies group) hosted a one-day event in which the main theme was social learning and the educator experience. The hashtag was #BarcelonaFLAN.

Full house in FLAN Barcelona
Full house in FLAN Barcelona

The event registered high attendance, with representation from several FL partners, especially Southampton (seven of us!), the OU, and the British council.

The University of Edinburgh’s strategy

The University of Edinburgh’s (UE) VC Prof. Tim O’Shea delivered the first presentation, with a description of UE’s MOOC strategy. Tim explained how MOOCs fit within their so-called “educational portfolio with technology” vision and evolution. In the two images below, such evolution is visualised, showing how open education and use of technology will expand, with MOOCs having a central role from around 15 in 2013 to a target of 100 in 2025:

UEd strategy 2025
University of Edinburgh’s MOOC strategy 2013-2025

This evolution was explained with ecological metaphors, whereby MOOCs can survive by become relevant bigger educational products such as Honours or Masters degrees through aggregation, e.g. a Masters degree would equate to 25 MOOCs.

Nic and Lisa: embedding MOOCs in campus modules

A presentation from Southampton followed. Nic Fair and Lisa Harris shared their experience on integrating MOOCs in an on-campus module. They provided compelling suggestions on how to add value to the modules through the inclusion of the on-campus students in the MOOC learning communities, as an effective way of enhancing their personal learning networks.

Nic and Lisa
Nic and Lisa

Rebecca Ferguson: a report on FutureLearn partners research

Rebecca Fergusson (OU) presented after that. She shared a report of the research carried out by FutureLearn partners around MOOCs. The report highlights eight priority areas:

  1. Develop a strategic approach to learning at scale.
  2. Develop appropriate pedagogy for learning at scale.
  3. Identify and share effective learning designs.
  4. Support discussion more effectively.
  5. Clarify learner expectations.
  6. Develop educator teams.
  7. Widen access.
  8. Develop new approaches to assessment and accreditation

A research question was generated from each of these eight priority areas. Southampton can make a significant contribution in all these areas, but there are three that can be highlighted as being areas in which Southampton can make a significant and genuine contribution:

  • FutureLearn supports conversational learning. How can this best be implemented?
  • What are the best ways of teaching at scale and of training MOOC educators?
  • How can we increase MOOC accessibility and widen access to learning at scale?

A highlight of this report is that the University of Southampton has been identified as the most prolific FL partner institution in terms of MOOC research, of course after the Open University.

PhD researchers: the FLAN essence

The ensemble contributions fromthe PhD students researching in FL partner universities are perhaps the most valuable asset of this academic network. In this occassion, researchers from the Open University and Universitat Pompeu fabra presented their research projects. They were all highly relevant and interesting, but I would like to highlight two of them: 1. Tina Papathoma’s work on how educators learn by being involved in MOOCs, and 2. Shi Min Chua’s contribution on the analysis of conversations in FL forums. A paper based on her research will be published in the proceedings of the FutureLearn Data workshop in the Learning Analytics and Knowledge conference in Vancouver, March 2017.

PhD researchers panel
PhD researchers panel from left to right: Kalpani Manathunga (UPF),Ishari Amarasinghe (UPF), Shi Min Chua (OU), Tina Papathoma(OU)

Other contributions and closing remarks

There were many other interesting contributions, such as the Skype session run by Mike Sharples with Ester Oliveras (UPF), Sarah Cornelius (University of Aberdeen), Sarah Speight (Nottingham), Pierre Binetruy (Paris Diderot). One of the discussions to be highlighted in that session, started by Sarah Corelius was around identified need for tools to capture and manage the most relevant comments in FutureLearn courses discussion boards so that mentors can provide optimal support to learners.

The session was not only academically very interesting, but also very fruitful: a potential collaboration with the UPF may arise from that visit, around the effects of MOOCs in universities.

We finally would like to thank Manel and Davinia for their hospitality. After the session, they offered us a tour around the facilitites of the UPF, which we gladly accepted. The only drawback was that we ended up being a bit jealous of their amazing resources for media production.


The #SotonTel Technology Enhanced Conference at the University of Southampton

The #SotonTel Technology Enhanced Conference at the University of Southampton


The University of Southampton has an enhancement theme each year. This year the theme is Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL), and this conference is one of the activities around this theme. The conference has been intense, with many high profile speakers and a wide range of TEL discussions have taken place. Fiona Harvey, @fionajharvey , one of the lead organisers, has also been the MC at the conference. In a theatrical setup with blue curtains behind her -how cool would have been to open them showing presenters on the stage after being introduced- she welcomed the audience. In her welcoming talk, she introduced Whova, an app designed for networking in events such as this conference. This app needs a bit of refining: I ended up sending friendly messages to all attendees in which apparently I was telling them that “we need to catch up”. The thing is I didn’t mean to do so!

Professor Alex Neill, @alexdneill finished the opening talk by explaining the width and importance of the TEL theme at the university. TEL encompasses MOOCs, VLEs, video recording of lectures, online learning programmes, and many other technologies and uses of technology. TEL can lead to an engaged community that makes learning more meaningful, and sharing ideas about TEL within the community is of paramount importance. This is the leitmotiv Alex was putting forward.


Julie Wintrup: To Blog or not to Blog


Julie Wintrup @juliewintrup started the presentations round by discussing the use of social media. More precisely, about the implications of publishing content through 2.0 technologies. It is now very easy to write for a wide audience, and this can be dangerous, as writing in social media is taken too lightly very often. Julie provides examples from the healthcare environment, her area of expertise. One is that girl who got in trouble for misusing facebook. This girl posted images from the hospital where she was being treated, and breached a series of policies and laws that brought dire consequences for her.

Julie continues discussing the use of social media by medical doctors. The use of social media breaks traditional boundaries between patients and doctors, doctors and colleagues, and other relationships. This is why she recommends doctors to explore social media, through a decalog of ten reasons why doctors should explore social media.

Julie also encourages doctors and medical students to read blogs, and to blog. For example, Alison blogs blogs about her experience in health care. One of the outcomes is the crowdsourcing that blogging can lead to for health recovery.

Social media can changes things. Gary and Lance have been working together, learning about each other´s world through Facebook.

Another example is Kate Granger. A doctor who suffered from cancer, she did not appreciate the impersonal and distant treatment from doctors. He then started  “Hi, my name is Kate”, in which she was encouraging identification for a more human treat to patients.

Russell Bentley: Technologies for Democracy. Our Ethical Challenge.


Through a metaphor from ancient Egipt, (how Thanos enhanced the human experience through the invention of writing), Russell explains how technology can transform humanity but can hinder human capabilities.

Writing can assist the powers of imagination, but can distort reality. Socrates didn´t write. Plato did. All we know about Socrates is through Plato, because he wrote. We can imagine the power Plato had at that moment, as he could have written what he wanted about Socrate´s teachings. These teachings have made modern civilisation as it is now.

If education is transformative, what transformation can we expect from TEL? Many technologies lend themselves to moral panics, such as the pocket calculator when it was introduced in schools. It scared many mathematical teachers who were afraid that pupils would lose the capacity to make arithmetic operations.

It has been said that all innovation is futile, because nothing really changes. Russell encourages to turn skepticism upside down, although emphasising the ethical point. That is, education is profoundly political. If we educate, we unavoidingly commit a political act. The transformation we want from learners is that that can make a difference towards educating a generation that can contribute to the improvement of the whole society.

Russell differentiates education with the development of personality. Our challenge is to harness cutting edge technology towards empowering students to contribute to the society we want to have.

Eleanor Quince: Harnessing Technology for Employability. Digital Literacy Skills in Student-led Career Activity


Elena runs the employability section of the faculty of Humanities. She often gets enquiries from students on ‘what to do’. She helps students to know what they want to do with their careers as early as possible. She created an employability module to this end. For this, she decided to get ideas from the students. Four interns  helped her develop the module. They created the ‘Mission: employable’ brand.

The way they harness technology to develop the module and their functionalities is the use of for knowing what other universities are doing. They also use Trello to visualise projects, and Eventbrite to organise events. Storify, ISurvey, Kahoot and other technologies were also part of the building process of the module content. All these technologies were used with the primary aim of engaging students to think about career paths. Eleanor believes that awareness and good use of these technologies can enhance students’ employability from early stages.

As part of the support network, they created a peer mentoring scheme. This scheme was displayed in a site embedded in the University webpage. This mentoring scheme was set up to work on distance, with technologies such as ISurvey and Facebook (there is a mentoring Facebook group for this purpose).

Eleanor believes that digital literacy and skills are of paramount importance to the employability of humanities students, and the employability programme she developed has got a clear technological focus.


Scott Border: A vision for teaching anatomy in the 21st century – reasons to be cheerful part 3


Anatomy studies have evolved. Initially, with Hypocrates, dissection was forbidden. In the renaissance, a lecturer would disect a body for passive students. Now, most universities want students to be actively involved in the study of anatomy. Medical education moved towards medical imaging. Now, many students are taught anatomy without the use of human tissue, using clinical imaging instead. There were concerns that students would never learn things about the human body without actually dissecting a human body. The cost of getting rid of anatomy laboratories with human tissues was reputational, rather than practical. In practical terms, TEL can really do job.

In Southampton, students learn anatomy through bespoke packages. They don´t have paper-based textbooks anymore. They have an electronic booklet instead. Stats show that the booklet is being used and students are engaging with it. What did not work so well is the use of the interactive elements of the booklet. Students’ favourite components were passive elements of the booklet.

Another success has been that the departments has managed to get students involved in the development and design of the learning packages. Through this collaboration, the department has developed the Virtual Anatomy Laboratory, a personalised tool that gathers each student´s learning materials in the same space, so that an individual storyline can be created out of the curations fo each of the studnets.

Debate: can BlackBoard revolutionise (higher) education?


Adam Warren: Yes, it can. It makes learning management easier. It only needs appropriate guidance. Actually, BB has already revolusionised education. The thing that only a tiny part of it has been exploited.


Hugh Davis: Blackboard cannot revolutionise education because it is not authentic and it has too many limitations. Many of the things you can do with BB, you can do them with any other piece of software with even more ease.


Christian Bokhove. Yes, it can. Blackboard has been underestimated, and many of the facilities that are already in Blackboard are unknown to the majority. The tools in blackboard can communicate together, whereas the isolated tools that you would use otherwise, don´t.


Rebecca @rkulidzan : BB looks obsolete. We (students) don´t use it for interaction. We use other cloud computing based technologies. Simply put, students don´t like it.


After the debate and final remarks


The debate finished at around 3PM and I had to leave, so I cannot report on what was going on after the debate. There is another blog post by Rachel Jones ‏@rlj1981 where this is explained very well.

This conference is the reflection that technology and innovation are unavoidable matters in universities. Experience on use of these technologies in all aspects of the teaching and learning experience has to be shared, challenged and discussed in order to be improved. Practitioners and researchers from all departments need to engage in events such as #sotonTEL. Educational change may not be exclusively driven by technology, but it would be unrealistic to ignore its role.