Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Era of Global College

College, except the rhetoric, remains an intensely local affair. One may talk about globalisation of education, of jobs and of knowledge, but only 2% of world's students study outside their home countries. Over the last 150 years, during which the universities were revived - and rightly, this was a revival as John Ruskin meant 'revival is of things that did not exist before' - the nation state has claimed it fully. Mostly in the name of teaching the 'useful arts', primarily in United States but also elsewhere in Europe, the state claimed the universities and turned them, rightly, into the instruments of making citizens. Indeed, this meant a two-, or a multi-tier system, that of making the rulers and the ruled, and alongside newspapers, the university education was essential to the making of modern state.

Now that the state is in retreat, the college is somewhat left on its own. Besides, the great mythology of meritocracy, that everyone had the same chance in life if everyone had tried hard enough, is somewhat discredited. In the new gilded era that we live in, greed, and unabashedly unequal privileges and perks for a few, is good. The college education, that surefire ticket to middle class life, is no longer vaunted. There are just too many people going to college, some will complain. Graduate unemployment is on the rise. Irrelevance has set in.

Indeed, the rhetoric is that college keeps a nation 'competitive'. This is about science and technology stealing the march, but that limits what the college can do or actually does. This claim is about research money, and that, more and more research is what it buys. Indeed, a large part of the research produced today is vanity research - papers that the researchers and their family (not really) only read - but this at least provides the justification to the policy-makers why the universities are needed. However, this wont save the universities as this de-emphasises teaching even further. The great hope of building nations of geniuses that peaked in the Postwar years is truly dead and buried.

However, there are other forces which have come to prominence, perhaps irreversibly. Globalisation, that umbrella term which seeks to hide and yet glorify the globally transient flexibly accumulative capitalism, is now the unseen elephant in the China shop: The Vice Chancellors are somewhat the blind men who can hear the breaking China but yet to figure out the beast.

Indeed, it isn't easy to make up our minds of globalisation. Till the 1990s, the poor was global and the rich had the local, but this has reversed now. Everyone seemed to have a tipping point of globalisation in their lives. For me, it was when Camay, the soap, became ordinarily available in my local shop. The previous object of desire, to be purchased with special effort and significant sum of money, was suddenly sitting there, alongside other ordinary soaps on the same shelves: Apparently, at that point, it started being manufactured in India, where I grew up. Over the last half-decade or so, it seemed that globalisation, on the back of a global recession, is achieving the unity of force which will make it an accepted fact, rather than a contested idea. It has surely entered the discussions about the college, in the college: So far, it is that impoverished version of globalisation, where a sprinkling reference of the otherness, passing under the tag of 'culture', sufficed mention and kept everyone happy. It is here, in college education, the final battle for the nation states was being fought for last several years.

With a pre-determined outcome, sadly! While the college itself declines alongside its national patrons, and globalisation takes over our drawing rooms (and bathrooms, as mentioned), the other obtrusive force in our China shop of sensibilities is technology. The techniques of human connections have now been transformed, and indeed, despite the persistent resistance from inside most colleges, they are being transformed. Like newspapers, college classrooms formed communities on the national lines: Like Internet, the modern learning technology will create inherently global colleges. This will not just mean global delivery of learning, as it seems to mean today. It will also mean deep 'internationalization' (one would wonder why we use the term, but this has something to do with the politics of the academia) of the curriculum and truly global conversations about teaching and learning. If the new architecture and building technologies defined the national-modern college, networking technologies will help us craft the ones in the new global-modern era. It is not necessarily post-human, as some of the commentators seem to be concerned about: It is just another phase in human transformation, and progress.

So, that's the story: The college, abandoned by the nation states, as the latter plunge into a terminal crisis, will find a new identity in globalisation, enabled by the new technologies of human connections. This will change everything, including the students' expectations and ultimately the scholarship they produce. It will give the college a new purpose - that of educating a global generation. And, this transformation will go beyond the superficial tinkering on the edges of nationally constructed curriculum and bring about fundamental shifts in knowledge and learning. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Quality and Profits: What's Next for UK Private Colleges?

2012 is set to be a defining year for private sector colleges in the UK. To start with, most of them will disappear. Traditionally, the sector thrived on international students: They charged one-third of the fees that an university will charge the international students, and weened away the market from them. But the UK government effectively killed this market, for now. A set of abrupt changes in the student visa regime, whose burden fell disproportionately on the private colleges, have deeply affected the market. Many private colleges have already found it impossible to keep going and folded: Others have been out in the market in search of a buyer, and holding on to find one. The Private Equity players are out in the market buying private colleges on the cheap, with a strategy of bundling them together and selling these on when the 'real' payday for private sector education - predicted to be around 2015 - comes.

This change is good in a way. At the end of this cycle, the ownership and management structures of the industry will certainly change. The owner-operator would give way to the professional manager, and relationships will mostly be replaced by rules: Just like the universities. The unsavoury corners of the sector - the visa colleges - will possibly close, or morph into something else. The prices will generally rise, as the new Private Equity owners will demand, and the operating practises will become just like the universities, as the new regulatory regime will demand and impose. 

Some of the colleges that survive this year in their current form, as the bigger ones possibly will, must choose their strategy carefully. While the profile of the sector will generally rise and student confidence will be regained, being like the universities may not be the smartest thing to do for a private college. They exist for a purpose - that of offering education in the under-served market segments - and they would need to stick to that.  This will need will and innovation, and strategies that go beyond copy-and-paste, and sticking to their original purpose. 

Which goes beyond making money, as would be generally suspected. There are at least two other motives plainly visible among the college owners: First, many of them came from a teaching background and wanted to do better teaching within an environment they create and control, and second, they came from an ethnic minority background and wanted to meet the specific needs of their communities, often of the ones back home. Indeed, an university reviewer may complain that these colleges didn't do any research, but they were not meant to do that anyway and this does not necessarily make a private college education meaningless. The cacophony of dialects in these classrooms, and predominance of alien faces in the corridors only indicate an opportunity, not the existence of something illegal.

Even in this difficult environment, the surviving private colleges must remember these 'founding principles' if it could be called that. They may have been less articulate in general, but the more successful private colleges were based on the belief that 'extraordinary possibilities exist in ordinary people'. One risk of trying to follow the universities too closely is to get into the 'ranking creep', an ever-upward spiral of cost and selectivity that may make private colleges irrelevant. The pressures to fall into this trap will be enormous: The reviewing agencies will demand it, the accrediting universities, somewhat jealous of the success of private colleges, will try to impose it, and the existing stereotypes of higher education will mandate it. However, the ideas of good teaching, open access and groundedness in community as appropriate in the global era may sound alien to public universities, whose values have changed because of the tyranny of the funding bureaucracies, but they have been consistent and universal requirements for successful independent colleges through the ages. It will only be common sense for the UK private colleges to stick to this even when everything changes around them.

This will be worth it, because, despite the current mood, the market is not going to disappear. The Tory government has put ideology ahead of common sense - as governments usually do - but common sense always wins in the end. This is a rapidly globalised world, where consumption is being driven by Asian consumers: Closing British Education to them is equivalent to banning them from shopping in Oxford Circus. And, the British universities, run by executives who are adept at playing the perks-and-privileges game with government bureaucrats, have no sense of the changing international markets: For most of them, it means an annual trip to exotic places, and a mid-afternoon shopping trip in search of cheap deals. To them, international students are the faceless undemanding lot, who pays an exorbitant fee just for the privilege of being taught by an Anglo-Saxon professor. In summary, despite their numerical success (64% growth in the last decade and expansion of outreach facilities), they have served the privileged classes, and want to continue to do so. They are oblivious that there is another market, a fast-growing and huge one, where the manners and dress sense of the prospective pupils are less refined, English scratchier, and qualifications less than pristine, but which is not short in aspiration, ability to hard work or in the will to win the world. These students are not going to go away anywhere, and the Private colleges will find a way to continue to serve them.

Indeed, the private colleges will have to change their strategy, and surely they will. There are a number of things these college owners are planning or talking about. 

First, there is increasing talk about effective association and self-regulation. This will soon happen: With the 'bogus' colleges being forced out of the sector, this is becoming easier to achieve. This may happen towards the end of the year, when the survivors and losers have been sorted out. However, this will go beyond what seems to be the holy grail of quality systems at this time, confidence from Quality Assurance Agency: The self-regulation and quality standards of private colleges have to be much more businesslike and exceed those of the universities and publicly funded colleges through invention of new standards and benchmarks.

Second, in the transformed marketplace, the good private colleges will differentiate themselves through good teaching. This is a shift away from the fetish about the curriculum, where everyone seemed to be after more courses from more university partners, and this led to a proliferation of courses and subjects in the college catalogues. In many a sense, the shrinking market forces a rethink, for good reason, and may mean return to the basics, good teaching focused on lean curricula.

Third, though there is talk about servicing the 'home' market, fuelled by the fact that every year more than 250,000 students do not get an university place, the private colleges will remain focused on the emerging segments of the international markets. The reason for this is that the home market is largely illusory: The 250,000 students that get left out get absorbed by other training programmes or opportunities. Besides, these students don't get an university place because of structural inefficiencies of the system, which the government is desperate to address. And, finally, the population boom that is contributing to the students being left out will now level out, and the number should come close to zero by 2015. On the other hand, the 'new middle classes' in Asia and Africa will arrive at a furious pace, expanding by more than 30% a year for next decade or so. Private investment, forever efficient in search of opportunity, will always remain focused on this rather than slugging it out for the bottom-end of what is actually a fairly small market. In an age of contracting visa numbers, this may mean increasing focus on remote delivery, either through overseas campuses or online delivery or both, but innovation in this area will be key to sustenance and success of private colleges.

Fourth, the innovation in delivery models and quality standards will also require the private colleges to rethink their approach to global engagements. The universities have traditionally operated through an agency model, and this was copied by private colleges in the past. This led to good business, but the full costs of these practises are only now coming to light. This is forcing a rethink, and soon we shall see different models of engagement, pooled in admission tests and scholarships, partnerships across borders and progression agreements come into play. 

Finally, the private colleges will need to find a new label. After all the mud thrown at the sector over the last few years, the surviving colleges will need to redefine themselves as, perhaps, 'independent' colleges, i.e., not dependent on government handouts. In that sense, 2012 may become the year of independence for the sector: That will bode well for British Higher Education.     

Monday, February 13, 2012

Quality and Profits: Reforming International Recruitment

This has been a difficult year for the private sector HE in the UK: The visa regulation changes have started to bite, and the International students have more or less decided to abandon the private sector colleges in the middle of all the uncertainty. The fact that the students can not work part time if they are studying in a private sector college, even when they are studying an university level course (such as an MBA) but can work if they go to a public sector university, is hurting the most. Seen together, the legislation is a cynical attempt to force the private sector colleges to close. The government has been reasonably successful in attaining this goal: A number of private colleges have indeed closed leaving their students unserviced. This has created further uncertainty among the students and the student recruitment for the private sector has completely dried up. This has now taken the shape of a self-perpetuating cycle: Private colleges are closing because they can't recruit the students, and students are not coming because the private colleges are closing.

For me, this is an interesting time to be in charge of the Higher Education section of a medium size private college. We are not big enough to be above trouble, but are not small and can sustain through the lean time. The conscious strategy that we have adopted is not to bang our heads on the brick wall - so we are not trying to recruit the students which is bound to result in disappointment - but rather forcing ourselves to look around. So far, we have been reasonably successful in diversifying: We have received funding for our work-based learning programmes, and put renewed effort and focus on our professional courses, which mostly recruit locally. What we achieved through these twin channels is the continued survival of the college for some time to come, time enough for us to meet the new quality and compliance benchmarks - the guarantees that an international student can believe in. As a team, we can be reasonably proud of this strategy as this ensured that the college will continue trading without recruiting a single student from overseas: Time now to begin the next phase of rebuilding the college.

That starts with rebuilding the recruitment channel for the college. The past practises of agency-based recruitment will not do. In the past, colleges passed down the financial risks to the agents, but agents passed up the compliance risks. In these lean and difficult times, neither the students nor the colleges can afford that model anymore. We started with a review of all our agents and their performance, not just in terms of business but also compliance, looking at students from which agents have been delinquent and accordingly rating the agencies. After this, we terminated all the existing agency contracts and issued new contracts to a select few: The new contracts upped the rewards for recruitment but made it dependent on student performance and retention. Most agents didn't like it: However, we have already accepted that most of our recruitment will not come through agencies, but instead through progression arrangements and partnerships, and hence our stance on the new agency arrangements were non-negotiable.

Since then, we have put in work in building the channels of progression and partnerships, rather than passive recruitment. This is different from students walking through the doors wanting to come to UK. The model we are developing will require the students to study a large part of the programme in their home country, either through one of our international outlets, as we are setting up in Turkey, India and Poland, or in a partner college, as we are doing in some parts of India, Thailand and Philippines.

This indeed means I go back to my old life - that of travelling to different parts of the world building partnerships - but I am enjoying being part of this transition. Over the last eighteen month, my colleagues and me have transformed what was a largely unreformed college - British Private sector HE has been a fragmented, unorganised affair right up to now - into a leaner, strategically aligned business entity with bigger ambitions. The business remains small in size, having shrunk somewhat in the last six months or so, but this was intentional rather than unwarranted. The step change required us to close the gates and retool the entire offering, which we have now done. There are battles to fight still, and this journey was never easy: However, I feel confident that when, many years hence, I would look back at this phase of my life, I shall feel that I have achieved something of significance, learnt a great deal and experimented with models which will now become the norm rather than exception in a refashioned industry.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

A Terrifying Prospect: Student-As-Consumer Meets British Universities

The student as consumer is an old thing. Between 1869 and 1909, Charles Eliot drove a number of innovations at Harvard, aligning the curriculum with vocational needs, allowing greater student freedom in terms of accommodation and social life, and even giving in, reluctantly, to College football: However, it is one innovation that he tried but failed to get through, that of reduction of credits required for college graduation, is possibly the most significant precursor of trends in Higher Education. Eliot was indeed criticised for his attempt to reduce the number of credits so that students can attain graduation within three, and not the customary four, years. The Faculty Board turned it down, a momentous defeat for a powerful college President at the height of his prestige. In fact, Eliot's successor as Harvard President, Abbott Lawrence Lowell would say, "May we not feel that the most vital measure for saving the college is not to shorten its duration, but to ensure that it would be worth saving?"

The debate, long forgotten, may ring a bell with a number of English universities today, who, caught between the current government's incessant policy juggling and incredibly smart and totally incomprehensible and unpredictable funding regime, have embarked on a path of creating two year degrees - a further shortening of duration from the customary three years in England. The reason, indeed, is cost: The students are now expected to bear the full cost of their education, albeit cushioned, for the moment, with an income-contingent loan. This sudden transformation of the student as a paying customer prompts the idea to save money for them by compressing the course (though this does not involve reduction of required credits) in two years. Indeed, this strategy itself would have cost quite a bit of money, invested in strategic planning, writing of reports, payment to strategy consultants etc. Indeed, students have to pay for all this, and savings have to be made, therefore, from the teaching time. This has now prompted a rediscovery of love for 30 credit modules, somewhat cumbersome as this combines disparate subjects (Economics and Marketing, Accounting and Psychology), which reduces the teaching hour requirements somewhat and allow consolidation of class sizes. In short, we are in the middle of a great panic induced by the imaginary arrival of the 'student as consumer': With all this, it is indeed appropriate to pause and 'to ensure that (the university) would be worth saving'.

It may not be, or at least a large part of it. The headline figure says that the applications for university places, despite a demographic bulge at the current time, is down by 9.9%. However, the headline figure obscures a more nuanced reality: Certain courses, mainly humanities and non-European languages, are coping with near catastrophic fall in applications, and certain universities, including London's University of the Arts (a combination of schools including the famed St Martins) and the University of Creative Arts, have fallen out of favour with applicants [and experiencing 20% and 30% fall in applications respectively]. And, this is not just about the fall of the arts and humanities: A cursory glance at the Winners and Losers list of this year's UCAS application indicates, rather jarringly, a steep growth in applications to private institutions like BPP University College and University of Buckingham, whereas a fall in many mid- to lower rung public universities. Closer analysis of this trend will surely emerge in the days to come, but the overwhelming shift seems to be towards smaller, nimbler schools offering more vocationally oriented programmes than their more traditional peers (for example, smaller and less reputed universities, Anglia Ruskin University, London Metropolitan University and even the University of West London, seem to be gaining in this environment).

One may question whether this is desirable, but we can't ignore the question anymore. The market, once invited to the party, always seems to win, and higher education is no exception. We may be experiencing a terminal cataclysm of the British Public Universities: A very predictable crisis in an out-of-touch system triggered by late but fundamental redefinition of what higher education is for. Unfortunately, the answer is getting shaped by the events from outside the academia. Led mostly by Vice Chancellors and Executive Teams from a different era, the universities have so far shown only limited capacity to participate, let alone influence, the public debate: Their reactions were marked by bureaucratic fiddling rather than courage to define the terms of the debate.

However, one may not be despondent: Student as a consumer may be a good thing. Higher Education has always served the needs of the time. One may moan about an imaginary golden age, but when the same age is defined as Higher Education for the privileged, it does not sound that glamorous anymore. One must accept that Higher Education has evolved - from teaching students to be clerics, to teaching students to be citizens and public administrators, and now to teaching them to be consumers. One can see these phases in America: This has now reached Britain.

This was a long time coming anyway, and was prevented by the ubiquitous welfare state which is on its deathbed now. The problem is that when this arrives, it arrives in all its intensity, a fundamental transformation of the whole landscape within the space of two years. Change, when comes without the institutional capability to adopt, which is precisely the condition of the British universities today, can be terrifying: The sector failed to provide a coherent response to changes altogether. The response from British HE to the arrival of the markets is to look for corners of protectionism - to protest against private sector participation in education, forcing the government to delay its Higher Education bill due to be tabled this summer. The more the VCs try to cling to their disappearing world of cosy protectionism, the sector will sink further into despair. It is indeed time for the universities to step out and face the market - as some of the pioneering ones like London Metropolitan University have already done - and embrace the new mantra. However, this does not seem to be in the DNA of the British universities, and they must therefore learn the lessons in the hard way.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

India 2020: Why India Does Not Innovate?

Nirmalya Kumar asks the question and comes up with an interesting answer - that innovation happens within the global value chain, and while Indians remain innovative, their innovation is often concealed within the end product. He cites iPad, among other things, where different components from different countries, with software written in India, come together: The end product is an example of innovation made in the USA, but within it, the innovation made in the UK, China, India, all combined together.

This is indeed true. However, we must also remember that in iPad value chain, little is left for component innovation. In fact, for all the talk of China's great strides in manufacturing, and this potentially altering the balance of power one day, one needs to note that global value chains leave very little for the sourcing countries. Yuqing Xing of National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, Tokyo, has done some remarkable work analysing such global value chains: His illustration why iPhone inflates the US trade deficit with China is interesting, but note the huge difference between the share of component manufacturers/innovators, and margins of the brand owners. There is certainly some value in owning the brand, and getting the credit for innovation.

Therefore, Dr Kumar's opening question - where are the Indian iPads - remains valid. There may be innovation happening in India, but the killer products are yet to appear. One would possibly agree with him it is not about rote learning or the other cultural explanations usually handed out in justifying lack of innovation in India: These are only constructed as a post fact justification. A more interesting answer may be found in seriously exploring the phenomenon of 'jugaad', the 'everything goes' model of innovation that Indians follow while serving the domestic market. Starting as a rather lighthearted term, this model has now started attracting serious attention. Further, as the Indian domestic market becomes bigger, this model of innovation will become serious play. The story in today's India is not just the middle class affluence, which is very real, but also the rural employment and rise in grain prices: As Professor Meghnad Desai makes the point, even if the rural workers' incomes rise from $1 a day to $1.20 a day, that's a 20% increase in purchasing power of nearly 500 million people.

This, once it becomes tangible, will make a huge impact on India's innovation, bringing out its iPad equivalents (the few existing efforts are decidedly shambolic). The process seems to have began: The battery-powered fridges, the low cost automobiles (which seem to have a tendency of catching fire, but let's compare it with IE 6 and wait for the next version), low cost housing - serious investment in systematic innovation to augment the Indian market is definitely on the agenda. There are some recurring themes: Such innovation is about low-cost product (for market it is serving), low energy (because coming late in the game, the Indian innovator must operate within environmental constraints) and low maintenance (because skills shortage in maintenance will remain). One can be optimistic about these innovations making it to the global markets one day: Not just to the markets like Africa, which needs it today, but also to higher value Western markets, as these innovations become tried-and-tested products and the Western consumers adjust to the new austere times, which will possibly last a while.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Social Media in Higher Education

Surviving the College Dining Hall
Via: Online Universities Blog

Quality and Profits: Virtual Learning Environment and Real Engagement - A Conversation with students and tutors


This study was carried out in a Private Business College based in the City of London, which offers MBA degrees validated by the University of Wales. The college decided to implement a VLE supporting its campus-based students in October 2010, with the goal of improving its ‘student engagement’. The college, following a common practice in the sector, used Adjunct Lecturers rather than Tenured ones, and the Management was concerned that this affects the Tutor availability and consequent engagement of the students with the programme or the institution.

The Study

This study looked what, if any, impact the implementation of the VLE has had on the student engagement one year after it was rolled out. Two focus groups, one consisting of five students from across two cohorts, and another consisting of four Tutors and Course Administrators, were arranged. Also, three separate interviews were also conducted, two with Tutors using the VLE to deliver their courses and one with a technical staff member tasked to provide VLE support.

Students’ Focus Group

Five students from two different cohorts attended the Focus Group to discuss if the introduction of the VLE enhanced the engagement with the college.


Broadly, the view was that the availability of VLE allowed better communication with Tutors, as the students could post queries or read what others have said. However, they resented the fact that the college stopped giving printed class notes, which they could read while traveling in the bus. They also pointed out that not all students have a personal laptop, and often it is too expensive for them to print the notes outside.

The students saw the primary use of VLE as a repository of of course handouts and information. They said they would rather chat on Facebook or GoogleTalk: They said they didn’t think the VLE is for anything else other than downloading course handouts. There were privacy concerns, and the students thought that someone could be listening if they share too much on the VLE.

The VLE was found to be easy to use. They could log in, and if they had any difficulty, forgot the password or couldn’t find information, the support staff was helpful. However, they thought some of the Tutors couldn’t use the VLE properly: Many tutors were very inconsistent about uploading their materials, they reported. Students felt ‘lost’ if they could not find the classroom notes even days after the actual session.

Finally, they thought the VLE could be improved ‘if it’s like Facebook’: If they can upload their photos, and write about themselves. When told that this was already possible, they said they did not think it was appropriate – the setting was very official.

Excerpts from transcripts Of Student Focus Group

The moderator welcomed everyone and opened the proceedings by explaining that the objective is to discuss what impact Moodle usage may have had on the student experience of the college.

Moderator: How often did you use Moodle and what did you use it for?

Student C: I log in regularly, let’s say, weekly once or twice at least. I would use this to download class notes and read the posts teachers were putting up. Not for all modules though: There is nothing for some of the modules.

Student A: That’s true. There isn’t anything for Economics.

Student C: I felt lost on that module. I told A [Tutor] but he didn’t put things up on time.

Student A: I used Moodle regularly too, but lack of materials put me off.

Student B: You complain that there were no notes for Economics, but the tutor gave printed notes. I like printed notes. I can’t access Moodle when my husband is at home and uses the laptop.

Student A: I requested if the notes could also be put up. It was easy for me: I didn’t want to carry them around.

Student C: That’s the point. I don’t see why A [Tutor] wanted to give printed notes. I thought it should be consistent for all modules.

Student B: I like printed notes. I know the college is trying to save money, but all students don’t have a laptop.

Student A: Most students have laptop. You have one!

Student E: I have a laptop, but can’t read it on the screen. I can’t print all the notes. It is too expensive.

Student B: Well, I don’t have a personal one. I can’t download much. My husband uses it too. Besides, I can read the printed notes while I am in a bus.

Moderator:  Did you use Moodle for any other activity than downloading class notes?

Student A: Not really. There was nothing much on.

Student C: I did read the posts R [Tutor] was putting up. That was interesting. I also did the quiz M [Tutor] used.

Student D: I did those too. Yes, they were good. I hope we are referring to the same thing though.

Student B: I found them interesting. I later realized that that was meant to be a preparation for the final exams.

Moderator: Did you use the forum at all?

Student C: To be honest, I find forums a bit boring. I can’t wait so long to get an answer.

Student A: I get put off by forums. I have most of the class on Facebook.

Student D: I would rather use Facebook or GTalk, not Moodle.

Student B: It is very official, isn’t it?

 Student A: Besides, we can’t say anything there. You would be watching! [Laughs]

Everyone laughs.

Moderator: Did you find Moodle easy to use?

Student E: Yes, it was easy. I lost my password, but T [Technical Support] was very helpful.

Student A: Yes, he was helpful.

Student C: I couldn’t find the courses first, but he helped me to find it.

Student D: He also came to our class and trained us. Our group gave her trouble. May be the other group was more friendly to him.

Student B: No, we gave him trouble too, but he was helpful.

Moderator: Did you think Moodle was a good thing for the college to do? Did it help you overall?

Student C: Yes, it was helpful. It was easy to write to tutors and get their feedback.

Student B: Why, you could have emailed them?

Student C: It isn’t the same thing. If I emailed them, they could have been bothered. May be they were busy. They could write in Moodle when they are logged in.

Student A: Not really. They could respond to emails when they like.

Student C: I felt otherwise. It is more like phone calls when you can send a text.
Student D: That’s interesting. I felt the same way. Though I didn’t use Moodle that much.

Student C: I felt the tutors were more accessible once we had Moodle.

Student A: I agree to that.

Moderator: I can see the point. What improvements would you suggest if we have to work more on Moodle?

Student C: Well, you can make it like Facebook. We could have had our photos and write about ourselves.

Moderator: Could you not already do that?

Student C: May be we could. I didn’t figure it out fully.

Student D: Could we? But what’s the use?

Student E: We already knew each other in the class. May be to know people from other groups.. yes, that would have been good.

Student A: Some students in our group did that. But only few.

Student C: It would have been good if we could access the library from Moodle. I mean, without having to log in to the University library.

Student B: May be you could give us courses on Moodle other than what we are being taught.

Moderator: Like what?

Student B: Like English. It would have been good to have an English course.

Student E: You mean, like an Online one?

Student B: Yes.

Student E: Oh, that would be good. Only if this is free though. [Laughs]

Moderator: That may be a good idea. Anything else?

Student A: May be, you can have one Moodle tutor. Someone who helps us with all the courses on Moodle.

Student D: How would that work? One person can’t do all the courses.

Student A: My point is – we have A [Tutor] for Economics, M [Tutor] for Marketing. It is easy that way. If there was one person for Moodle, it would have been good.

Student C: We have T [technical support].

Everyone laughs.

Student B: By the way, did you think he knew when we are logging in and out? He told us that he can see the usage report.

Moderator: Most probably he can.

Student D: That will scare me. I never used it much.

Student E: Me too. Would he be able to see what I am doing on the site?

Student C: He would. What were you doing? [Laughs]

Everyone laughs.

Student E: Nothing much, but it is the passwords I was setting. [Laughs] I did go to him when I lost my password afterwards. How silly?

Student A: He may not see your passwords. Would he?

Student C: May be, he can.

Moderator: Is there anything else you can think of before we close?

Student A: Not really. I think Moodle is good.

Student B: I think you should give printed handouts, but Moodle is good. We can write to Tutors easily and see what others are writing, too.

Student C: Nothing to add. I have spoken much. I think Moodle can be improved and would love to help the college if it needs my participation.

Student D: Well, I haven’t used much. May be I will.

Student E: Nothing much to add. I am worried if T saw the passwords. I shall ask him.

The moderator thanked everyone for participating and closed the session.

Tutors’ Focus Group

Two Tutors and two members of the Course Administration team joined the Focus Group to discuss whether the VLE has improved the ‘student engagement’ at the college.


There were some divergence of views in the Group: One Course Administrator felt that the ‘VLE has done a lot and could do a lot more if the Tutors were using it more’, the Tutors generally felt that the students are not interested in using the VLE and that the forums bear evidence of the same.

The Tutors agreed that the VLE was a good platform to share their class notes, but they were unsure how much they could do as they were adjunct tutors and did not want to lose control of their materials once they have shared it in an electronic format.

The question of access came up and that it is wrong to assume that everyone has a laptop and internet connection. The tutors also felt that they are being stretched as the VLE demanded more of their time. There was also an issue of prioritizing for students who would use the VLE and others, who would focus on print-based study.

A number of suggestions were made about what improvements can be done to the VLE.

“It would have been good if we could ask the students to keep writing a blog throughout the programme, and if this could be shared with other students. Since the blogs are contained within the individual courses, and only shared within the cohort, this isn’t possible now.” (Tutor, Male) 

Excerpts from transcripts Of Tutor and Staff Focus Group

The moderator welcomed everyone and opened the proceedings by explaining that the objective is to discuss what impact Moodle usage may have had on the student experience of the college.

The moderator explained that a similar focus group for students have already been arranged, and this session is to get different perspectives from Tutor and Staff.

Moderator: Let me start with an open question. Do you think the students are more engaged in the college after the introduction of Moodle?

Tutor A: Depends on what you mean by engagement. If you compare this with what was happening a year back, it is certainly better now. Can’t say whether that is because of Moodle or something else.

Staff A: I agree. I think the students are more engaged, but there are a number of reasons for this. We have improved many things now. But, yes, Moodle has done a lot and could do a lot more if the Tutors were using it more.

Staff B: Yes, agreed. Students spend a lot more time on the campus, now that the reading room is so much more better. I think they use Moodle more. But then we have better students now than we had before.

Tutor B: I agree with others. I think the students are more engaged with the college. I think they don’t care about Moodle though.

Staff A: Why do you say that?

Tutor B: I don’t think they access it often. I don’t know what they have been telling you, but my students don’t even log in.

Staff A: It is about tutors, I would think. I have heard that some tutors don’t put up notes, and they don’t log in, therefore. I think it is two way.

Tutor B: I set up quizzes on Moodle. These were meant to be formative assessments, to help them in their exams. Only three students out of twenty actually did these.

Tutor A: I agree with you. They don’t care about Moodle. They mostly want printed notes.

Staff B: I have heard students talk about the quizzes and I thought they found them really useful.

Staff A: I think different students are different. I am sure Moodle helps those who want to go the extra mile.

Tutor B: My problem is that I have a limited time and whether I should give it to help students who don’t use Moodle or those who do. It is not always true that the good students are using Moodle: There are others who are equally good but may not be that IT savvy.

Tutor A: Or may not have a laptop. It is a mistake to assume that everyone has personal laptop. Particularly these international students.

Staff A: I agree. I think if we expect them to use Moodle, we should give them a laptop as a part of the course.

Staff B: And, internet connection? I think that would be a problem.

Tutor A: I think they should arrange their Internet. Though they don’t want to spend money on everything.

 Staff A: I am not sure what can be done, but in the immediate term, may be we should encourage everyone to put more activities on Moodle. That will encourage the students and the word will spread.

Tutor A: I think many tutors will have a problem. Most tutors are just contracted ones in this college, and they may not want to share their materials electronically. What if the college takes their material and then employ another tutor?

Staff A: Yes, I think that’s an issue. I have heard this before.

Staff B: Also, there is an issue that some tutors may put up materials where they may not have copyright. I have seen someone trying to put up a Harvard Business Review article. I am not sure how he got the PDF and whether he could share it on Moodle.

Tutor A: I am not clear what I can share on Moodle. I usually follow the same rule as I do for photocopies. I hope that will be the case.

Staff B: I am not sure.

Tutor B: I think it would be quite similar, but may be that’s something the college can do – get a clear policy out. That will help everyone.

Tutor A: Also, a policy on Intellectual Property. The college can assure Tutors that their materials will not be used for any other purpose. I am sure no one intends to do that anyway, so it is an easy statement to make.

Moderator: I shall note it down as an action point. Both, copyright and intellectual property…

Staff B: Yes, I think that would be good. Also, I would like to see  a more personal feel of the VLE, so that everyone can create their profiles and also participate in the forum. I am as much part of this course as anyone else: I would love to have an account and at least be able to see what people are saying.

Staff A: You mean, you would be in the courses? I am not sure that’s a good idea. The students will feel that you are watching them.

Staff B: This is not about watching. We are expecting them to do more than their courses there, right? So, if I am part of it, may be I can ask them to do various other things. Like a debate.

Tutor A: I am not sure you will be able to do that within a course forum. That will distract everyone. But may be there could be a general forum, where you can do that. In fact, I think you should have a general forum where you should do that.

Staff B: Is there something like a General Forum?

Tutor B: I am not sure. I think everything is inside the course pages.

Tutor A: That’s an idea I have thought about before. I teach in the Leadership programme students. It would have been good if we could ask the students to keep writing a blog throughout the programme, and if this could be shared with other students. Since the blogs are contained within the individual courses, and only shared within the cohort, this isn’t possible now.

Tutor B: Yes, that might have been a good idea. Is that technically possible?

Moderator: Yes. I shall take that away as an action point.

Tutor A: Well, sometimes I don’t know what’s possible and what’s not. So, I don’t try it out. I always thought that we should do something at the programme level, but couldn’t figure out how this is to be done.

Tutor B: Yes, I mostly stick to the template too.

Tutor A: This is another thing to explore. It is not just student engagement. I think we should explore how to engage the tutors too. Once tutors are engaged, the students will automatically be engaged.

Staff A: That’s not necessarily true.

Tutor A: It is. You should think that the tutor would be stretched with the VLE as they have to respond to student queries at odd hours. They must feel it is worthwhile to do so.

Tutor B: Yes, it is true. I often answer the questions posted on Moodle at odd hours. Some students always post them at middle of the night.

Staff B: You surely don’t have to it immediately. You can always do it later.

Tutor B: That’s not the way I work. I feel uncomfortable if I don’t answer a query when I saw it. I always write something.

Moderator: Is there a difference when a student writes an email and when she posts a query on Moodle?

Tutor B: Not really, not from my point of view.

Tutor A: May be there is a difference. I think the moodle query is more urgent. I shall tend to respond to that immediately. Emails can wait slightly longer.

Staff A: I agree. I would think a student will post urgent queries on Moodle.

Tutor A: It is also about everyone watching.. [laughs]

Tutor B: Yes, especially you guys.

Tutor A: On a serious note, I treat the Moodle queries as if all the students have the same question, whereas emails are about one student having a specific query.

Tutor B: But good thing about Moodle is that sometimes, the other student will answer it before I do.

Moderator: How often does it happen?

Tutor B: It happens. Some students are always on, and quite helpful.

Tutor A: There are differences, though. Girls get more help than the boys. Prettiest girl gets maximum help. [Laughs]

Everyone laughs.

Staff A: That’s always the case, isn’t it?

Tutor A: Are we talking about some kind of strategy to engage students on Moodle then? [Laughs]

Everyone laughs.

Moderator: Before we close this session, any other suggestions on what improvements we can make to Moodle to improve student engagement?

Tutor A: I think we should start with Tutor engagement. It should not be seen as a distant big brother thing that the college is doing and tutors have to follow this. One should talk to all tutors and make them see the benefits. They have to do more work. The college should actually look at the Tutor contracts and see how they are rewarded for the extra effort they have to put up for Moodle.

Tutor B: I agree to this. And we should also look at student champions. The students should talk to students about using Moodle. I think that programme level course idea is very good. If the students are writing a blog and if other students can read it, that would be great.

Staff A: I think Moodle should be redesigned. It should be more colourful and young. May be we should allow students to put their pages up. I don’t think they know what all they can do, and may be we should teach them.

Staff B: I also think we should address the issue of access. Seriously think of giving laptops to everyone and may be an internet connection too, if that’s practicable.

The moderator thanked everyone for participation and closed the session.

The Interviews

Two semi-structured interviews were set up with Tutors primarily to discuss and validate the key observations from the Focus Groups. The tutors agreed that the VLE is not being used to its ‘full potential’: They thought the system is too restrictive, and they are not able to adapt it to the way they would like to approach a subject as this can’t be easily done. They thought one needs to be sure about copyright issues, where they want to share an article or some web-based material to their students, which they could do easily print off. They also thought that the college should clarify their stance on the tutor materials shared on the VLE: If they are reassured that this material will not be used for any other purpose other than the course they are teaching, they would be far more comfortable sharing the same.

As far as student engagement is concerned, they pointed out that their timing is being stretched as the students keep posting things all the time, and they feel obliged to respond as soon as they can. They agreed that there are different kinds of students, and some never use the VLE: But it is ‘something that really helps the students who want to go an extra mile’.

The interview with the Technical Support person explored some of the improvement areas highlighted by Focus Groups. He appreciated the limitation in terms of programme level support in the VLE used (Moodle 1.9). He suggested that the VLE should be integrated with a portal software, which may allow greater programme level support, social features and single sign-on system that was being talked about.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Purpose of Education: Noam Chomsky on Learning without Frontiers

India 2020: The Brahminic Backlash

As India grows richer, a threat to its democracy is becoming apparent. The Indian upper classes, as Devesh Kapur has memorably illustrated, whose earlier generations mostly left for greener pastures overseas or withdrew into gated communities of modern Delhi, may want to come back. This is a tension which the current discourse on Indian diaspora may not capture. The diaspora almost gave up the country, because it was poor and offered few opportunities, but also because democracy challenged the position of the traditional elite in the society. However, India's emergence as an economic powerhouse and its various opportunities are now engaging this diaspora, now people with money, with the country yet again. And, this, startlingly, may hinder democracy rather than spurring it.

Kapur contrasted India and Pakistan, and noted that the flight of India's skilled elite allowed Indian democracy to prosper, whereas Pakistan's land-based elite couldn't go, and actively blocked the country's movement towards democracy. This is a simple, but powerful theory, empirically supported, and I would suspect this thinking has somewhat informed the Indian government's love-hate relationship with its diaspora. This may be one of the reasons why allowing dual citizenship is so difficult for the Indian government, though the non-residents are wooed to make investments in India. India treats diaspora as it would treat any other investor - love their money but loath their practices - and this may have come from this deep schism that lays beneath the creation of the modern day Indian diaspora (as opposed to the ones created by the Raj).
The diaspora also solidly stands behind the 'development' agenda, as personified, of late, by Narendra Modi, wherein economic development takes precedence over democratic discourse. Mr Modi actively engaged the diaspora, and in it, he sees active supporters and sympathizers of his kind of governance. His support base has grown over the years, and Gujrat prospered with diaspora investment and closer links with the advanced economies through the diaspora. Recently, this seemed to have become a more inter-community affair, with diaspora Indians from non-Gujrati background rooting out for Mr Modi. They see in him an attractive politician who can win their country back for them.

Mr Modi is indeed suave, far smarter than the other diaspora darling, Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh. Mr Naidu, to be fair, had a far worse hand than Mr Modi, a poor state fighting deep-rooted Maoist insurgency as opposed to Mr Modi's generally prosperous and enterprising Gujrat. If there was to be any challenge to Mr Modi's power from its minority Muslim community (rich as they are in certain areas), he fired a decisive warning shot at them through the riots early in his career and has managed to put them in place. He has also effectively maintained a 'professional' image, clean, efficient, ruthless, something that upper class diaspora Indians love to see. They have started dreaming of the day Mr Modi becomes the Prime Minister of India, and they can start winning back the position they, and their parents, 'deserve' in the society.

This may indeed not happen for years to come. Indian Democracy is messy, but it may not be as fragile as it seems. It took Indian leaders a long time to reach where they are now: In a sense, Gandhi opened the door for everyone, backward classes, peasants, and the democracy was built on that platform. Nehru did his bit too, by promoting universal suffrage and through this, actively marginalized all the extreme opinions, Hindu nationalism and communism alike. It would take time to undo such longstanding transformation of the society.

However, as India has become economically attractive, a Brahminic Backlash may be in the making. Several opportunities may open for the exiled elite at the same time: The ability to participate in economic life, which has already happened, may now be supplemented with greater powers with media, education and eventually politics, with the liberalization of different sectors and eventual expansion of diaspora rights. This is indeed no justification for protectionism - India must not assume that its democracy is fragile - but it is important to solidify the democratic institutions in the country, which will help to co-opt both the disenfranchised in India as well as the non-resident brahmins. If this isn't done, the inevitable economic logic of liberalization will eventually unleash the power of non-resident communities into Indian political landscape. If democracy failed to deliver, it will surely be transformed.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Quality And Profits: Virtual Learning Environment and Real Student Engagement

“Students At the Heart of Higher Education”

At the time of writing, the Higher Education system in the UK is at the cusp of a revolutionary change. The change, brought about by a mixture of financial necessity and ideological persuasion of the government in power, is designed to ensure ‘substantially more money will flow via students and less via HEFCE’ (Willetts, 2011). The Ministers claim that this will ‘reduce central political control, put more power in the hands of consumers and promote innovative delivery methods’ (Willetts, 2011). This market-based and consumption-driven system has been presented with the claim that this will put ‘students at the heart of Higher Education’.

Whether or not the new system will create a better Higher Education system is still being debated. However, highlighting students as the primary beneficiary of the Higher Education system, rather than the communities or the nation, imply a shift of emphasis and has called for new discussions and initiatives. With the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) embarking on the development of a new UK Code of Practice on Student Engagement, due to be published in June 2012, and Higher Education Academy (HEA) presenting a conference track on “Changing and developing practice in student engagement” in HEA Annual Conference 2011, enhancing student engagement is firmly on the agenda of Higher Education leaders in the UK. It is also suggested that the role of students may undergo a subtle shift as the funding regime changes, and they may essentially become ‘co-developers’ and ‘co-creators’ of their educational experience and become very much ‘engaged’ in their programme of studies (Beaumont Kerridge, 2010, cited in Eade, 2011).

However, as Lewis (2011) indicates, “there is not a shared understanding of what this term means”. Trowler and Trowler (2010) also highlight the absence of a clear definition of “student engagement” and the lack of evidence that the activities under the umbrella do actually contribute to “real enagement”. Krause (2005) suggests that engagement has become a catch-all term in Higher Education covering a compendium of behaviour characterizing students, who are said to be more involved with their university community than their less engaged peers. A recent research commissioned by the HEA surveys various aspects of student engagement across different Business Schools in the UK (Eade, 2011) and comes up with a list of areas or initiatives undertaken to improve engagement:
·      Innovation in terms of delivery, in particular teaching learning and assessment
·      Changes made to the curriculum to encourage “engagement”
·      Student retention and transition – particularly the first year
·      Reflective Practice
·      Student Representation
·      Student Support Systems
·      Extra-curricular activities
·      Student involvement in the development of curriculum
·      Student surveys

In recent times, many institutions worldwide has introduced Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) in supporting learning for their campus-based students. While different institutions use and implement VLEs differently, enhanced student engagement feature as an important objective, apart from dissemination of information and sharing of learning content, of the VLE. However, while there has been considerable research in the area of student engagement as well as various aspects of Online Learning, exploration of VLE’s impact on student engagement remains limited (Coates, 2005). This paper attempts to survey the literature in the area and discover some of the issues involved.

Defining Engagement

Students’ time on task and their willingness to participate in activities is suggested as the definition of engagement (Stovall, 2003). However, definitions such as this perhaps needed further clarification plodded by the practicalities of the University life (as encapsulated memorably by Clark Kerr’s definition of three priorities – ‘sex for students, parking for faculty and athletics for the alumni’). Krause and Coates (2008) defines engagement as the ‘quality of effort students themselves devote to educationally purposeful activities that contribute directly to desired outcomes’. Chen et al (2008) views engagement as ‘the degree to which learners are engaged with their educational activities and that engagement is positively linked to a host of desired outcomes, including high grades, student satisfaction and perseverance.

Beer (2010) cites Hamish Coates’ following definition as the ‘aggregation of the literature’: “Engagement is seen to comprise active and collaborative learning, participation in challenging academic activities, formative communication with academic staff, involvement in enriching educational experiences, and feeling legitimated and supported by the university learning communities”. (Coates, 2007)

Beer (2010) also cites the Seven Principles Framework by Chickering and Gamson (1987), which was used to design aspects of the Australasian Survey of Student Engagement in 2009. This seven principles framework of good practice in undergraduate education represents a philosophy of student engagement (Puzziferr-Schnitzer, 2005) and Beer (2010) presents an alignment of the two definitions as represented in the following table:

Elements of Coates’ (2007) definition of engagement
Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) seven principles of good practice in undergraduate education
 Active and collaborative learning
2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students; 3. Uses active learning techniques
Formative communication with academic staff
1. Encourages contacts between students and faculty
Involvement in enriching educational experiences
5. Emphasizing time on task; 6. Communicates high expectations
Feeling legitimated and supported by university learning communities
1. Encourages contact between students and faculty; 2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students;

4. Gives prompt feedback.
(Reproduced from Beer, 2010)

Environment and Engagement

Environments of teaching and learning are expected to play a significant role in creating engagement, as they may facilitate learning activities, or at the other end of the scale, may potentially distract efforts. Dunn and Dunn (1979, cited in Fulton, 1988) states:

“Based on observations, interviews and experimental studies conducted since 1967, it has become apparent that regardless of their age, ability, socio-economic status, or achievement level, individuals respond uniquely to their immediate environment.”

It is indeed meant to be a two way relationship, as Fitt(1974) suggests based on her qualitative studies: “Any spatial transaction between an individual and his environment depends on two variables: The individual’s idiosyncratic use of space and the environment’s structuring.”

Various aspects of physical learning environments, including seating arrangements (Becker et al, 1973; Koneya 1976), effects of windows (Karmel, 1965) and outdoor settings (Mandel et al, 1980), were well researched. It was generally agreed that in a setting not in alignment with the learning, like a noisy space for music classes, a significant part of students’ and tutors’ efforts may be devoted to neutralizing the distractions, and as a consequence, may proportionately reduce their ability to engage in tasks towards the desired outcomes. However, it is also noted, as Becker et al(1973) observed in their study on classroom seating arrangements, “that simply altering the physical structure, without an accompanying change in the social structure, will not produce real change”.

At this point, it is important to note that the ‘Environment’ may mean more than just the physical setting of the classroom. As Hiemstra(1991a) puts it : “A learning environment is all of the physical surroundings, psychological or emotional conditions, and social or cultural influences affecting the growth and development of an adult engaged in an educational enterprise”. Tagiuri(1968) has presented a taxonomy of environmental climate components, composed of ecology (building on classroom characteristics), milieu (individual’s characteristics), social system (interpersonal or group-patterned relationships) and culture (beliefs, values and expectations). (Cited in Hiemstra, 1991a)

To understand how environments may affect student engagement, one may adopt what David(1979) suggested as the functional approach, in which physical features and social and curricular concerns are to interact. At this point, one also needs to accept Sommer’s observations that an ‘ideal study environment’ is an illusion and “no single study situation can satisfy the needs of extroverts and introverts, lone and group studiers.. What is needed is a variety of study situations that can appeal to the students with particular interests” (Sommer, 1970).

Following this approach, Weinstein(1981) called for ‘environmental competence’ in teachers and instructional designers, an awareness of the physical environment and its impact, and an ability to change the environment to suit the educational purposes. (Cited in Fulton, 1988). Hiemstra(1991b) made some early suggestions towards how educators can commit to a new practice for developing learner participation and engagement, including giving control to the learners about how and where they learn, incorporating Microcomputer technology, ongoing ‘audit’ of the environment, collaborative approach towards the learners, and being proactive and making personal commitment to bring in change when needed.

Engagement and Virtual Learning Environment (VLE)

Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), a term somewhat interchangeably with Learning Management System (LMS), is defined by Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC 2000) as a software system ‘in which learners and tutors participate in “on-line” interactions of various kinds, including on-line learning”. More broadly, an LMS is defined by Whatis.com as ‘A software application or Web-based technology used to plan, implement and assess a specific learning process. Typically, a learning management system provides an instructor with a way to create and deliver content, monitor student participation, and assess student performance. A learning management system may also provide students with the ability to use interactive features such as threaded discussions, video conferencing and discussion forums’. (Weller, 2007)

While the two terms, VLE and LMS, are coined to mean similar things and used interchangeably, the term VLE connotes a certain intent to see the software as an ‘environment’, presumably an alternative to the ‘physical’ one (hence, ‘virtual’). This denotes a quantum leap from Hiemstra’s (1991b) intention to enrich the learning environment with careful integration of microcomputer technology, which is all but natural given the prevalence of computer applications in many other fields. However, at the same time, it is possible to see VLEs as the realization of many of the suggestions made by Hiemstra and his colleagues: It distributes the learning environment over space and time (Cross, 2009), allowing the learners greater flexibility in terms of when and where to learn. However, given their broad capability and impact on students’ learning experiences (not to mention prevalence of Virtual Universities powered by VLEs), it is only logical to treat these software programmes as a self-contained environment, rather than a tool to be integrated into some broader framework.

Coates (2005) assesses the VLE to have the capability to meet his requirements of student engagement, as:

“LMSs have the capacity to influence how students engage with their study and to change collaboration, communication and access to learning materials. LMSs enrich student learning by offering access to a greater range of interactive resources, making course contents more cognitively accessible, providing automated and adaptive forms of assessment, and developing a student’s technology literacy. Asynchronous online tools allow students to interact with learning materials, their peers and the entire university in ways not bound by time or place”.

In a follow-up article to Chickering and Gamson’s work on good practices in undergraduate education, Chickering and Ehrmann (1996) argued that new communication and information technology by itself would not lead to educational achievement. Instead, Ehrmann (2004) suggested that technology should be used by educators as a catalyst to create student success. In a sense, this is reminiscent of Weinstein’s call for ‘environmental competence’, made in a different era for a different kind of environment.

The utility of information technology usage in enhancing student engagement has been researched extensively. Chen et al (2010) cites Robinson and Hullinger (2008) who found ‘that asynchronous instructional technology allows learners more time to think critically and reflectively, which in turn stimulates higher order thinking such as analysis, synthesis, judgment and application of knowledge’; Duderstadt et al(2002) stated, “When implemented through active, inquiry based learning pedagogies, online learning can stimulate students to use higher order skills such as problem solving, collaboration and stimulation”. Thurmond and Wambach (2004, cited by Chen et al, 2009) observes that the students taking online courses are expected to work collaboratively, which is an important component of student engagement, and that ‘collaborative components have been integrated into most web-based course designs’. Besides, Pascarella and Terenzini (1991) suggest that a key factor in student engagement is the communication with teachers outside the classroom: Kennedy (2000) claims that this is precisely what the ‘chat’ feature in online technologies, and distribution of student-teacher interaction over time and space may be able to achieve.

Using the VLE to enhance Student Engagement

Coates (2007) suggests four identified styles of student engagement, as either intensive, collaborative, independent or passive. These styles are based on definition of social and academic dimensions of student engagement, namely:

Intense - Above Norm Social Engagement, Above Norm Academic Engagement

Collaborative - Above Norm Social Engagement, Below Norm Academic Engagement

Independent - Below Norm Social Engagement, Above Norm Academic Engagement

Passive - Below Norm Social Engagement, Below Norm Academic Engagement 

Students reporting an intense form of engagement use the campus facilities, social life and online learning facilities, and they do it for both academic and social purposes. The independent style students often use the online engagement to legitimize and contextualize their learning activities, but are unlikely to participate in collaboration or social interactions. These students tend to view themselves as members of a supportive learning community, but are less likely to work collaboratively or participate in extra-curricular activities. The collaborative engagement style indicate that these students use the online platforms and general campus-based activities to connect and collaborate with other students, more with social than the academic purpose in mind. The passive style students, however, are unlikely to use the online or campus facilities altogether.

It is important to remember that this model is based on styles and states of engagement, rather than enduring traits. Coates (2007) also points out that this model is consistent with the model of engagement proposed by Clark and Trow (1966) which characterizes four student subcultures as combinations of two variables : ’the degree to which students are involved with ideas and the extent to which the students identify with their college’.

Coates (2007) suggests that identifying the students in this Engagement style typography may help the institutions to tailor and coordinate their online and campus-based activities. This may help the institution to move beyond the ‘accidental pedagogy’ that Morgan(2003) identified most usage of VLEs with. This may also help the institutions to build ‘broad community support and stimulation’ for individual learners through the VLE. They may also provide ‘opportunities to have extra and richer conversation with staff, participate in a greater range of complimentary activities, and, in particular, to engage in more collaborative activities with their peers’. Interestingly, this study also points out that the students don’t see certain core educational experiences as interchangeable, and therefore the online and general scales show little correlation. This prompts the suggestion that while VLEs may be used to enhance student engagement in the campus, this should not be seen as an alternative to core activities, like tutor support.

Exploring The Issues

However, despite the impressive range of capabilities of a modern VLE, there is no ‘out of the box’ solution and educators must actively engage in designing the environment to achieve the desired outcome. Careful consideration must be given to many different items to ensure the VLE is fit for purpose. Cross (2009) makes this observation about physical learning environments, which may be equally valid for a VLE: “At best, individual teachers are in a position to establish basic requirements, and then tailor the environment precisely to meet the needs to learning and learners. At worst, there is an expectation that all participants should put up with inappropriate facilities and make do with whatever happens to be provided”.

While VLEs offer a range of technical possibilities, for an individual tutor, it is often technologically challenging. Given the economies of scale for purchase and support, as well as problems of data sharing between different software systems, the tutors often have to work within an institutionally mandated VLE rather than being able to create something, which may suit their pedagogic requirements. Vosko (1985), while studying proxemics of seating arrangements and distance zones, were startled by the finding that even when adults saw a need for change in their immediate physical environment, they seldom, if ever, initiated any such change: Both the teachers and the learners perceived the responsibility of the change in the physical environment to be that of the administrators. With the increased level of complexity involved in setting up a VLE, it is often more challenging to persuade the tutors to carry out continuous ‘environment audit’ that Vosko ended up suggesting.

Also, VLEs are also often seen as cost saving mechanisms by institutional decision makers, and most implementation of VLEs are accompanied by reduction of other resource provisions. However, some of these may hinder student engagement: For example, if one is to assume that tutor time can be reduced as the VLE is introduced and some of the teaching can become asynchronous, this will reduce the online interactions (due to time constraints of the tutor).

It is also important to keep in mind that the VLE effectively alters the education process, even when used in a limited context. Salmon (2002) observed that ‘VLEs are NOT neutral. Like any technology they embed underlying values about teaching and learning, promote certain affordances and reduce other choices”. ‘Affordances’ are social capabilities technological qualities enable (Byam, 2010) and was memorably encapsulated in McLuhan’s famous ‘the medium is the message’ coinage. Often, this change in the educational process is not fully appreciated by the tutors and the institutions, and not embedded in pedagogic and other engagement efforts.

Lee (2001) suggested that with the implementation of ‘web-enhanced learning’, four distinct learner types may emerge, each with a different combination of levels of use and academic performance:

Model Students: High usage and performance. Students are in alignment with tutor intentions, and know what’s expected of them: Consequently, they make the best use of the available resources.

Traditionalists: Low usage but high performance. These students stick to face to face interaction and print-based study. They are not significantly disadvantaged by the low use of VLE and object to any linkage between VLE usage and academic performance. This group suffers if the institution moves more towards the distance learning model.

Geeks: High use but low performance. There is mismatch between students’ and tutors’ intents: The students may simply see the VLE as a technology tool or communication platform, and not engage with course content.

The Disengaged: Low use and performance. These students don’t use the VLE and are increasingly disengaged if the tutors use the VLE as a key component in teaching and learning: Consequently, they fail to make the grades.

In a study titled ‘Virtual Learning Environments – help or hindrance for the disengaged students?’, Alice Maltby and Sarah Mackie (Maltby et al, 2009) uses Lee’s framework to study the VLE usage and academic performance of a number of students and conclude that “online behaviour patterns of potentially ‘at risk’ students are formed surprisingly early in their university life”, thereby potentially allowing corrective action to be taken. However, the researchers admit various ethical and privacy issues that VLE tracking may raise, and limitations of the methods for persistent usage and practical implementation.


In summary, while implementation of the VLE opens up a range of technological possibilities to enhance student engagement, it is critical that careful consideration is employed in choosing and implementing these features or possibilities. A successful implementation of VLE should involve a careful planning of institutional priorities, adequate resourcing and appropriate instructional design keeping in mind the features and possibilities. Weller (2007) refers to them as ‘patterns’, following the structural clues that architects tend to leave to indicate the potential and intended usage of space and built environment.  This is indeed appropriate: Just like the built environment, a VLE may not be taken for granted, but should be carefully designed to facilitate real student engagement.


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