More Data – Open Data

Data for all. has launched. It’s a great idea for a site which is intended to provide access to lots of open data but also tools and somewhere to share ideas and approaches:

This is a landmark site for academia providing a single point of contact for linked open data development. It not only provides access to the know-how and tools to discuss and create linked data and data aggregation sites, but also enables access to, and the creation of, large aggregated data sets providing powerful and flexible collections of information.

Here at we’re working to inform national standards and assist in the development of national data aggregation subdomains.




We are all part of the constantly evolving open data agenda and its emerging culture. aims to bring together the higher education community and the wealth of data it has access to, and encourage that community to share, utilise, update, grow and generate demand for open data.
The data being aggregated via this site can be used in all sorts of ways including:

  • Improving transparency
  • Increasing participation
  • Increased knowledge
  • Identifying trends
  • Improving products and services
  • Innovating
  • Improving efficiency

It’s still early days but it does look like a very promising development indeed.


Another amusing attack on administrators

Flipping administration. Clever.

An entertaining piece on another splendid idea by Benjamin Ginsberg. A previous post noted his recent book The Fall of the Faculty had a distinctive analysis of the process of strategic planning as a tool for power-hungry administrators.

This time, it is suggested we “forget MOOCs” and use MOOA instead (it really doesn’t make a lot of sense).

Studies show that about 30 percent of the cost increases in higher education over the past twenty-five years have been the result of administrative growth,” Ginsberg noted. He suggested that MOOA can reverse this spending growth.  “Currently, hundreds, even thousands, of vice provosts and assistant deans attend the same meetings and undertake the same activities on campuses around the U.S. every day,” he said.  “Imagine the cost savings if one vice provost could make these decisions for hundreds of campuses.”

This is a completely different MOOA.

This is a completely different MOOA.

Asked if this “one size fits all” administrative concept was realistic given the diversity of problems faced by thousands of schools, Ginsberg noted that a “best practices” philosophy already leads administrators to blindly follow one another’s leads in such realms as planning, staffing, personnel issues, campus diversity, branding and, curriculum planning. The MOOA, said Ginsberg, would take “best practices” a step further and utilize it to realize substantial cost savings.

So, massive open online administrations. It’s good to see that the whole idea has been thought through in real detail and that the MOOA will be offering a strategic plan for lots of institutions early in 2014. With the exciting title of “administeria” it really sounds like a winner.

Rate your administrator

Rate this, rate that, rate everything

Following the outstanding success of Rate Your Lecturer, which has been overwhelmingly endorsed by right-thinking academics everywhere, it’s time to broaden the assessment. Due to extraordinary demand therefore we are now launching Rate Your Administrator.


RYA is the site that finally gives users of a range of administrative services and processes a say. RYA is essentially a giant thing with words written on it – so instead of hoping a friend knows how good an administrator is you can visit this site and see reviews put up by other admin fans whilst adding your own. This is the only way to improve administration in the UK whilst holding your administrators to account. Please do take a couple of minutes to add your thoughts on the hot administrative topics that really matter to you.

The starting point for the site is the administrator ratings kindly provided by you, the user of administrative services. Each administrator is rated out of ten on each of the following criteria:

  • core administrative ability
  • nice smile
  • out of hours email response time
  • dress sense
  • patience
  • grammatical skills
  • resilience in the face of adversity
  • tendency to obfuscate.

Once this has been done the administrator is attached to the admin activity that they are being rated for. This is the most important part for the discerning admin user and it is the area which can help to revolutionise universities in this country. Be it minute-writing, HR, planning or just any kind of admin-related activity then you get the chance to see who is best at what.

Crucially, the admin activities page will enable prospective admin users picking their universities to compare administrators on their administrative ability, something that has never been possible before.

The site has received almost unanimous support from both people who have discovered it. So come on – rate your administrator now!

Next up – Rate your parking place.

Eight minutes to choose a degree course

A report on the use made of Unistats

HEFCE has published an evaluation of the Unistats website after its first period of operation. It suggests that the huge demands made of institutions in providing the necessary data have paid off as Unistats has already become “one of the most widely used higher education course comparison websites”.

unistats latin

Since its launch in September 2012, the Unistats web-site has received over 3.8 million page views and over 175,000 unique visitors – an average of 984 new visitors per day. The site is used extensively by prospective higher education students, their parents, careers advisers, teachers and higher education staff.

The research, commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Councils, looks at the site’s position in the market and how it is perceived and used, as well as issues such as navigation, search, filter and comparison functions, and data presentation. A separate report by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) focuses on the experiences and views of higher education institutions.

Key findings include:

The average length of visit to the site is over eight minutes (a long time compared with use of other web-sites).

Many users regarded the independent and authoritative nature of the site as one of its key strengths.

Prospective students, current students and parents were more positive about the site than careers advisers, teachers and higher education staff, and more likely to describe the site as ’useful’ and ‘easy to get around’.

All very gratifying for Unistats fans. But as an earlier post noted there really is no shortage of information on HE opportunities. The most worrying element of this report though is the eight minute visit. Whilst this is undoubtedly a comparatively long time for a website visit it really is a frighteningly short time to spend looking at possible course choices.

Broadcasting university performance

Very public reports on institutional performance.

Accessible university performance data.


Rather impressed by this Performance Tracker which is concerned with reporting in a very accessible way on the progress of Michigan’s public universities:


The achievement of Michigan’s public universities is a critical factor as we look to participate in the knowledge economy of tomorrow. A well-educated, skilled talent base will help our state develop and attract new business opportunities. Universities also drive research and development, bring thousands of new faces into our state, and build lasting partnerships that advance our communities.

These goals matter to all of us, and so does the performance of Michigan’s higher education system. This website offers an overview of Michigan’s higher education achievement nationally, and shows how our universities are acting as incubators of future economic growth and change.

There is a great deal of very interesting data in here from graduation rates to tuition fees and SSRs to salary costs. Sensibly, the bench marking is against peer institutions. Will we see others adopting a similar approach? And might it catch on in the UK?

Big Brother for University Sport

Responding to worries about student athletes on social media.

There has been not insignificant anxiety in US higher education about the inappropriate use of social media by student athletes and universities are looking to monitor activity much more closely. On this side of the Atlantic the issues have largely been confined to professional sports people (and Joey Barton).

Whilst there may be general worries in UK universities about student use of Facebook and Twitter these have yet to have the impact that some unfortunate transgressions have had in the US where some universities have banned athletes from using Twitter following concerns about insulting, vulgar and generally questionable posts by players. And also because the coaches suspect social media might represent something of a distraction for players.

Fortunately, for those universities which struggle with monitoring social media usage there appear to be several organisations dedicated to ensuring that student athletes behave themselves. Looking for example at via Varsity Monitor, one of these monitoring outfits, we find they have an interesting prospectus:

For Athletes and Parents:

College recruiters actively review social media accounts to fully evaluate the character of potential recruits. Varsity Monitor works to ensure that social media posts do not negatively impact recruiting or existing scholarship offers.

For Institutions:

Coaches, Administrators and Sponsors need to ensure that Athletes uphold their organization’s standards and adhere to their code of conduct when using social media. Varsity Monitor provides monitoring services that help verify that policies are being followed.

Varsity Monitor provides extensive social media education for athletes and administrators designed to establish a solid foundation for the positive use of social media. Exploring methods and techniques to leverage social media to promote and enhance their brand and reputation.

Just extraordinary. Is it worth it if the teams deliver the results required? Or is is excessive intrusion into students’ non-academic activities?

Why MOOCs won’t kill universities

Forget the dire predictions – universities aren’t finished.

The MOOC evangelists have predicted that the disruption they will wreak will mean that universities are dead in the water. Christiansen foretells wholesale university bankruptcies within 10 years (since extended to 15 years). Sebastian Thrun goes further, asserting apocalyptically that within half a century there will only be 10 (10!) universities left in the world.

The evidence base underpinning these sweeping predictions is, to say the least, limited and I am therefore reluctant to invest too much effort in offering an alternative view. So you won’t find too many references here.

It is also genuinely disappointing to see the relish with which some commentators anticipate the demise of our institutions of higher learning. Fortunately, they are talking piffle as the following points demonstrate conclusively.

The future for universities?

Not the future for universities

Eight reasons then why MOOCs won’t kill universities:

  1. More not fewer. Rather than sweep institutions aside MOOCs will actually prompt growth in HE providers. The increase in the range and accessibility of online resources will stimulate demand for local universities and colleges which will have to expand to meet the expectations of those who have had their appetite whetted and have demonstrated they have the ability to pursue a higher education course.
  2. Disappointment with MOOCs. For many, not least the 9 in 10 who drop out of MOOCs, the disappointment which results from the limitations of the format or the poor quality of the provision or a multiplicity of other reasons for deciding that online content delivery is not for them may leave them wanting more. More traditional higher education providers will be on hand to offer a more rounded experience which might overcome this disappointment and build on the newly discovered enthusiasm for learning. If even a small proportion of those who don’t complete their MOOCs decide to enrol then demand for mainstream HE will grow not shrink.
  3. Universities are innovative too. Higher Education is actually rather good at innovation. Despite the appearance of stability and consistency at the core over many years (centuries in some cases) universities have always supported and nurtured innovation. They have also been subject to and had to adapt to radical changes down the years. So, there is really nothing new here for HE and we can expect plenty of interesting and creative responses to the MOOC movement. Indeed universities are accustomed to disruption and change. One of the mistakes the MOOC evangelists make is to conflate system sluggishness with institutional, departmental and individual indolence. Universities are home to many outstanding innovators and entrepreneurs and can offer incredibly dynamic and fast-moving research environments. Let’s not forget where the MOOC leaders first got their breaks
  4. Governments want to invest in HE. Governments almost everywhere continue to believe HE is a good bet for economic success and national prosperity and they will therefore continue to invest in universities regardless of the numbers claimed to be enrolling on MOOCs. There are, according to Webometrics,  currently at least 21,000 universities across the globe. This number will continue to go up in the next few years not down.
  5. Quality counts. It’s all about quality of outputs not just the inputs. If universities close it will be because of poor quality provision not as a result of MOOC offerings in themselves. It is just as likely that student demand will force weaker providers to raise their game.
  6. University diversity means most will survive. The MOOC zealots seem to think all universities, at least outside the Ivy League, are the same. They aren’t. Diversity is a strength.
  7. Universities are cunning. Bandwagon jumping by some institutions is arguably either a clever subversive tactic to undermine MOOCs from inside or a deliberate distraction from alternative disruptive innovations being undertaken by universities. I’m not allowed to say which.
  8. Universities award degrees, diplomas, certificates and credit. MOOC consortia don’t. HE providers therefore hold quite a few cards when it comes to certification of learning. MOOC enthusiasts bleat about this a lot as if it is somehow unfair. It isn’t. It’s the difference between a university with hundreds of years of public investment, history, intellectual capital and legal (or regal) underpinning and a collection of snappy videos. You don’t get to award degrees just because you want to.

So, there you have it. Despite what the doom-mongers say, universities will continue to thrive, prosper and grow. It really takes a bit more than a few MOOCs to change that.

Yet more support to help UK HE internationalise?

More international support for Higher Education.

A year ago HEGlobal, the new portal for helping universities develop transnational education capability, was launched:

There is a consensus across government that engaging in and promoting international education and skills is strategically important to the UK for three main reasons: firstly it presents potentially significant commercial opportunities; secondly, it is an important soft power tool which supports the UK’s image abroad; thirdly, integrally linked to the above, it is key to maintaining the reputation of the UK education sector as one of the best in the world. However, although the UK’s education and skills sector is already doing well internationally, evidence suggests that we risk not taking full advantage of growing global opportunities. Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and elsewhere want to improve coordination across government by tasking the UK Higher Education International Unit to lead on a sector-wide initiative to do more to help UK higher education institutions (HEIs) increase their transnational education (TNE) capability.

HEGlobal looked like a real sector/government joint effort, although I must admit to being a little sceptical at the time about the need for it.

One of those pictures with lots of logos on it

Leaving aside the contradiction in policy between supporting this form of internationalisation whilst at the same time imposing visa regulations which hamper international student recruitment to the UK and give the impression that we aren’t open for business, there is something amiss here. The last piece of news on the site seems to date from January 2012 and it rather looks like there hasn’t been anything of interest to update the sector on since then. That’s a bit of a worry in the fast-moving HE environment.

But now, stop press, we have another new support unit for UKHE, this time with UKTI in the driving seat on its own it seems. This new team has been established “to help UK exploit international opportunities in education exports”. Sound familiar?

Education UK will capitalise on the growth in demand for UK education abroad

A new team dedicated to capitalising on the growth of demand for UK education from abroad is being established, Skills Minister Matthew Hancock announced today.

Education UK will specifically target fast-growing markets such as India and the Middle East. The UK has an excellent reputation for education internationally, but isn’t currently exploiting this to the full.

This the approach we need to take with exports

This the approach we need to take with exports – if only we could market HE as successfully as this

So, we have another new unit dedicated to helping UKHE exploit our talents to the full (no information is yet available on the extent of the Princesses’ involvement though). You’d think we weren’t much good at it. You might also be slightly perplexed by the similarity to the British Council’s Education UK campaign which shares the same name and is intended to support international student recruitment (or education exports).

Confused? You will be.

Frightening Stuff: It’s Monsters University

Fictional and daft but really rather impressive

My attention was drawn recently to the Monsters University website. It is of course an entirely fictional construct to promote a new animated movie from Pixar which is a prequel to Monsters Inc from a decade ago.


Looking through the site it really is a quite good pastiche of the top level of university websites. It covers everything from Admissions to Campus Life and student related policies on employment, keeping pets and international student support. An extract from the University history gives a flavour:

Established in 1313 following a land grant from the city of Monstropolis, Monsters University has grown from a small local center of learning to a leading global institution of higher education. Upon this hallowed ground, some of the most fabled academic buildings in the world have been built, serving the hundreds of thousands of alumni that have walked the halls and grounds of MU.

So, utterly daft but really also rather good. It also helpfully reminds us that our own institutions’ sites might be just a few words away from the cartoon world. My only criticisms would be that the curriculum in the School of Scaring looks a little thin and there is insufficient coverage of Professional Monster Services.

Go compare – Which advice to take?

Which? University adds to the university information mix

Last week saw the launch of the new Which? university comparison website. Trailed in the White Paper n June 2011 it offers yet more information to prospective students in what is already a very crowded landscape.

The Which? University website enables comparisons of courses by students by price, A-level entry requirements and graduate starting salaries. There are also ranking lists, based on a poll of students, which rate universities for creativity, political action, nightlife and sportiness, among other things.




Times Higher Education reported on the launch:

Loughborough University is the top university for sports, while the universities of Northumbria and Newcastle, and the University of Liverpool, are judged to have the best nightlife, according to a poll of almost 10,000 students by market research firm YouthSight.

The School for Oriental and African Studies, University of London, ranks the highest for having the strongest political scene.

Students at the University of Oxford are the most happy, based on scores from the 2011 National Student Survey – though the ancient university was ranked equal in this respect with Neath Port Talbot College and Ruskin College, an adult education college in Oxford.

Graduates from the London School of Economics had the highest average starting salary, beginning on £28,968, the site says.

The site was launched at Westminster College by David Willetts, the universities and science minister and Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students.

“Choosing the right course and the right university is an important, and often daunting, decision,” said Mr Willetts.

“I want prospective students to have all relevant information at their disposal.”

Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: “It’s worrying how many people are making one of the biggest decisions of their lives without proper guidance or advice.

“That’s why we’ve launched Which? University so that people have free access to impartial information and can more easily choose the right course and university for them.”



I’d agree with this point – there really isn’t enough proper guidance and advice available for prospective students. There is however more than enough information and data out there. Before Which? University arrived there was already a similar site doing a similar job (although it now seems to have been suspended) and offering similar information. Beyond this we have all of the main UK league tables and universities’ own websites and prospectuses to draw on for comparative information. Not to mention the National Student Survey and the new Key Information Set (KIS).

There is no information deficit. As noted in a previous post about the KIS there is huge amount of information available for prospective students. The Minister and other partners in the Which? enterprise, including the National Union of Students, demonstrate a touching faith in the power of information and data and popularity polls to help students make the right decisions. But really we don’t need more course comparison sites. We don’t need more information. Students need high quality professional advice and guidance to make sense of this information and to make the right choices for them. That is the real deficit.

Which? University is not the silver bullet.


The Beginning of the End for Traditional HE?

Will MOOCs kill universities?

The future for universities?


Forbes carries an expansive piece on the implications of MOOCs and asks “Is Coursera the Beginning of the End for Traditional Higher Education?“.

Could high-quality MOOCs eventually do to traditional colleges and universities what Craigslist has done to classified advertising in newspapers and what Wikipedia has done to encyclopedias? In other words, could Coursera and its ilk replace a $250,000 college degree and decimate the world of brick-and-mortar colleges and universities?

A previous post highlighted many of the issues and challenges associated with MOOCs. In summary, some of problems with these developments include:

  • There is no proper academic quality assurance: by and large anyone can offer any course they want without any need for approval.
  • Self-selection: courses are offered by self-selecting academics and followed by self-selecting students.

  • Drop out rates are inevitably very high.
  • There isn’t any meaningful or quality assured assessment.
  • Non-accreditation: completion will get you an attendance certificate or a virtual badge rather than credit or a real qualification.

Of course this Forbes piece is just the most extreme example of the overblown hype surrounding MOOCs. As suggested in the earlier piece on these developments, MOOCs have more in common with the growth in adult education and the expansion of Mechanics’ Institutes in the late 19th Century. Unlike classified ads in newspapers and encyclopaedias, universities are built on more enduring foundations. Yes there will be challenges from the new online provision but the idea that Coursera and the like will kill off universities is just absurd. And all that content has to come from somewhere.

The most entertaining response to this kind of piece I have seen is over at the Easily Distracted blog. Under the headline “Listen up you primitive screwheads” we find the following spot on observatopn:

Again, pundits, let’s talk. MOOCs are damn interesting, you betcha, but seriously, if you think they’re about to solve the labor-intensivity of higher education tomorrow with no losses or costs in quality, you have a lot of learning to do. Not just about the costs and budgets of higher education today, but about the history of distance learning. Right now you guys sound like the same packs of enthusiastic dunderheads who thought that public-access television, national radio networks, or correspondence courses were going to make conventional universities obsolete via technological magic. And hey, if you’re that keen on the digital, skip the drinks, I’m happy to educate you via email.

Hear, hear.

I’m looking forward to when the fuss dies down a little and we can assess more soberly the contribution that MOOCs might make to higher education more generally. In the meantime I guess we’ll just have to put up with this kind of ‘is this the end for universities?’ silliness.

Making money from MOOCs

There aren’t any MOOC business models which stack up. Yet

An earlier Imperfect University post on MOOCs questioned their ultimate impact on traditional university provision. Inside Higher Ed carries an interesting piece on possible business models for MOOC providers which notes that with over 1.5 million people having registered for MOOCs through Coursera, Udacity and edX, the level of demand is significant:

But while demand appears to be high, none of these three organizations — two of which are for-profit companies that will be expected to generate money for investors and the other of which is a nonprofit that will be expected to stand on its own feet eventually — currently has a business plan.

They can afford it, for now. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University together have committed $60 million to edX, Coursera has raised $16 million in venture funding, and Udacity is sitting on an undisclosed infusion from Charles River Ventures. They have cash to burn, and each has focused on establishing partnerships with reputable institutions and professors and harnessing available technologies in its platform.

The MOOC providers are nonetheless in strange territory. They have staked their future on a vision that makes higher education more free than ever before. And yet their task, eventually, will be to figure out how to make money. By declining to charge for content, instruction and assessment, these providers will have to find new ways to cover their overheads and pay back investors.

A huge issue for MOOCs is the absence of accredited certification. One solution might therefore be to forget credentialling altogether and make the link directly between student and employers, charging the the former for promoting them and the latter for access. Alternatively, or additionally, they could offer additional premium paid for content and services which bring them closer to current fee charging online higher education such as tutoring, online assessment support, library resources etc. And if the worst comes to the worst the MOOC providers could always sell advertising space.

It’s still early days though and it will be fascinating to see which way MOOC business plans develop.

The Imperfect University: Massive Open Online Confusion?

The Future of HE? Or Massive Open Online Confusion?

For the latest Imperfect University piece a few thoughts on a topic which is attracting considerable comment at the moment: the growth of the Massive Open Online Course or MOOC. There has been a huge amount of hype around the new models of online provision or MOOCs, much of it significantly overstating the likely impact of such offerings. The numbers involved are impressive though with hundreds of thousands enrolled on some courses (hence the “massive” descriptor). Will MOOCs transform higher education as we know it? Or are they in fact closer to more traditional models of education than their proponents admit?

Disruptive innovation, a theory originally developed by Clayton Christensen to explain how new entrants to markets could take the lead through innovation and supplant traditional businesses, has been frequently applied of late to higher education. There has been much talk and many exciting conference presentations and magazine articles about how these new online providers will disrupt traditional models of learning and bring about the end of the physical university.

A paradigm shift?

Among the most extreme views on the likely impact of MOOCs we have Sebastian Thrun who has set up Udacity, a major new online provider, which has emerged from Stanford University with much fanfare. Quoted in a recent edition of Wired he predicted some change in the higher education market:

Fifty years from now, according to Thrun, there will be only 10 institutions in the whole world that deliver higher education.

Others have compared existing universities to companies which failed to adapt to new technology, such as Kodak. as for example, this story in the Washington Times notes:

The recent bankruptcy declaration by Kodak, one of the nation’s most trusted brands for consumers, which once held a market share in excess of 90 percent, is stunning. Kodak mistook America’s century-long love affair with its products as a sign of market permanency, missing the fact that camera phones, flip cameras and online sharing would erode its brand and render it irrelevant.

So it’s clear that even though the reservoir of public trust for higher education is deep, it certainly isn’t bottomless. That means colleges and universities must do all they can to keep and sustain the public’s confidence in higher education.

Colleges and universities also must focus on increasing higher education productivity – but not the kind that is about budget cutting to serve fewer students or about making individual institutions more selective. Instead, the true definition of productivity is one that offers a substantial increase in high-quality degree and certificate production at lower costs per degree awarded, while improving access and equity for underserved populations.

Ultimately, though, higher education must take control of its own future. The world is indeed changing, rapidly, and colleges and universities must seize the moment to meet the rising demand for high-quality skills that are vital to our collective well-being as a nation. If they don’t, they, like Kodak, risk the chance of being gone in a flash.

So, is this a once in a generation paradigm shift which will sweep away the some of the longest established organisations in the Western world? Or is it an over-hyped bubble?


Looking first at Udacity, established by the aforementioned Professor Thrun, it claims an impressive 160,000 students from around the world enrolled on on its first course in artificial intelligence. It summarises its mission thus:

We believe university-level education can be both high quality and low cost. Using the economics of the Internet, we’ve connected some of the greatest teachers to hundreds of thousands of students all over the world.

A glance at the curriculum for one of the Udacity classes gives a sense of what is on offer:

CS262: Programming Languages

Description: This class will give you an introduction to fundamentals of programming languages. In seven weeks, you will build your own simple web browser complete with the ability to parse and understand HTML and JavaScript. You will learn key concepts such as how to specify and process valid strings, sentences and program structures. Then, you will design and build an interpreter – a program that simulates other programs.

String Patterns
Finding and specifying classes of strings using regular expressions

Lexical Analysis
Breaking strings down into important words

Specifying and deconstructing valid sentences

Turning sentences into trees

Simulating programs

Building a Web Browser
Interpreting HTML and JavaScript

Exam testing your knowledge

It all looks rather good. However, it’s difficult to escape the impression that there is a significant element of ego in here on the part of those leading this. Who wouldn’t want to be loved by hundreds of thousands of students instead of just one or two classes a year?


Similar to Udacity is Coursera, which includes courses from Princeton, Stanford, Michigan and Pennsylvania Universities. The Coursera mission is nothing if not ambitious:

Education for Everyone.

We offer courses from the top universities, for free.

Learn from world-class professors, watch high quality lectures, achieve mastery via interactive exercises, and collaborate with a global community of students.

You can see the introductory video here:

Again, all jolly exciting.

Khan Academy

Khan Academy, which for a few years has been offering huge amounts of content leading to a range of “badges”, is another major player in this area. A recent piece about how “Bill Gates’ Favorite Teacher Wants to Disrupt Education” gives a flavour of the approach taken by its leader:

How would he change education? By turning it upside down. First, he says, we should “decouple credentialing from learning.” Instead of handing out degrees, standardized assessments would be the measure of employee competence. Anyone could learn at their own pace in their own way: in an internship, as an entrepreneur, or at home on the Internet. Then, everyone, no matter how they were educated, would be equal before the evaluation. Additionally, he thinks the assessment could be more meaningful than whatever abilities a college degree actually signals to employers.

The Khan Academy site explains more about how they recognise learning through badges:

As soon as you login, you’ll start earning badges and points for learning. The more you challenge yourself, the more bragging rights you’ll get.

We’ve heard of students spending hour after hour watching physics videos and 5th graders relentlessly tackling college-level math to earn Khan Academy badges. Some of the smaller badges are very easy, but the most legendary badges might require years of work.

Will these badges become more meaningful than degrees? Will higher education be turned upside down?


MITx, the online offshoot of MIT, started its ball rolling in late 2011, then more recently joined up with Harvardx to form edX, described thus:

An organization established by MIT and Harvard that will develop an open-source technology platform to deliver online courses. EdX will support Harvard and MIT faculty in conducting research on teaching and learning on campus through tools that enrich classroom and laboratory experiences. At the same time, edX also will reach learners around the world through online course materials. The edX website will begin by hosting MITx and Harvardx content, with the goal of adding content from other universities interested in joining the platform. edX will also support the Harvard and MIT faculty in conducting research on teaching and learning.

Interestingly, the very laudable aim of edX to support research about learning rather sets it apart from the other developments mentioned here. The edX – FAQs offer some more insights into the approach:

How is this different from what other universities are doing online?

EdX will be entirely our universities’ shared educational missions. Also, a primary goal of edX is to improve teaching and learning on campus by supporting faculty from both universities in conducting significant research on how students learn.

Who will lead edX?

EdX is a priority for the leadership of both Harvard and MIT, and it will be governed by a board made up of key leaders from both institutions, appointed by each university’s president. MIT Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Anant Agarwal will be the initial President of edX and will report to the board.

Does the effort have a staff?

EdX is a significant undertaking that will require significant resources. The full scope of the staff has not been determined, but there will be a dedicated staff to the initiative.

Who can take edX courses? Will there be an admissions process?

EdX will be available to anyone in the world with an internet connection, and in general, there will not be an admissions process. For a modest fee, and as determined by the edX board, MIT and Harvard, credentials will be granted only to students who earn them by demonstrating mastery of the material of a subject.

Will the certificates be awarded by Harvard and/or MIT?

As determined by the edX board, MIT and Harvard, online learners who demonstrate mastery of subjects could earn a certificate of completion, but such certificates would not be issued under the name Harvard or MIT.

Some of the problems with these MOOCs

There are a number of problems associated with these developments:

  • There is no proper academic quality assurance: by and large anyone can offer any course they want without any need for approval or monitoring by an academic body. It might be good, it might not but you’ll have to try it to find out. However,  edX argues that the standards are the same as for regular MIT and Harvard courses:

Will MIT and Harvard standards apply here?

The reach changes exponentially, but the rigor remains the same.

This may be true in terms of the content but they are not assessed in the same way and, as noted in the edX FAQs above, certificates will not be issued in the names of the universities.

  • Self-selection: courses are offered by self-selecting academics and followed by self-selecting students. Again there is no quality assurance in relation to either.
  • Drop out rates are very high: most people simply won’t stay the course. It’s easy to enrol but even easier to drop out.
  • It’s something of a popularity contest: what’s new and exciting is what’s popular. Robotics and artificial intelligence are the hot topics to study along with lots of related IT stuff. However, Sociology and Greek Mythology can also be found.
  • Non-assessment: there isn’t any meaningful assessment. This is one of the biggest problems with this kind of large scale offering – the assessment methods seem to be basic at best. There is a need for something beyond multiple choice – undoubtedly we will get more sophisticated assessment tools in future but scaling up will be difficult.
  • Non-accreditation: completion of all of the work will mean you get the equivalent of an attendance certificate or a virtual badge. These may have currency in certain businesses in some sectors (mainly IT) but it is not clear that they will achieve wider recognition. (See an earlier, rather critical, post on this topic.)

Terms and conditions

To be clear about what is not offered, let’s look at some of the terms and conditions from Udacity:

you acknowledge that any letter of completion awarded will not be affiliated with any college or university and will not stand in the place of a course taken at an accredited institution;

you acknowledge that instructors of any Online Course will not be involved in any attempts to get the course recognized by any educational or accredited institution; and

you will abide by the Student Conduct Policy listed below.




OK it’s a free offer, and students are able to learn for nothing and do get an attendance certificate or a badge but there are no guarantees that anyone will recognize either (in fact there are seemingly very few guarantees at all). Will employers start favouring these? I doubt it even if some companies eventually employ the brightest of the hundreds of thousands taking some courses who manage to stand out and then receive a recommendation from a tutor.

Perhaps not that revolutionary after all

It’s all very exciting and has prompted breathless commentary about the imminent demise of traditional universities. Yes, these developments will have an impact but MOOCs will not replace universities – rather they will offer a different avenue to self-improvement. MOOCs are an interesting new delivery method and offer education at scale in a way that traditional universities find hard but really this is more of a contemporary variation on the Adult Learning/Continuing Education model. The expansion and democratization of learning which MOOCs represent is thoroughly laudable but they are in reality an extension of education offerings rather than a replacement for established universities.

The new Mechanics’?

Despite all the hype, this new provision may offer real value for many. MOOCs can be seen as the internet equivalent of the Mechanics’ Institute, which started in the 19th Century as vehicles for self-improvement for working men unable to gain access to conventional education.

Leeds Mechanics’ Institute (now a museum)

Some of these institutes formed the foundation of universities (including UMIST, Heriot Watt and Birkbeck for example) and provided routes into higher education for those usually excluded. But for many people such institutes, which often included libraries, provided a means of improving technical knowledge to enable advancement at work or more general self-education. This philosophy still underpins the largely part-time provision at Birkbeck.

Such institutes often depended on philanthropy for their resources as do some of the online startups we’re seeing now. Will these new providers last as long as some of the Mechanics’? Perhaps. They do offer something new and interesting for which there is clearly demand.

So, we should embrace MOOCs as a welcome additional contribution to education in the great adult education tradition. But will they sweep aside traditional universities? (Or all but 10 of them?) I don’t think so. Things are likely to be a bit confusing for a while therefore.

“Beyond ratings, beyond rankings, beyond opinions…”


See what professors say about their teaching style, grading, and experience. Learn what you need to know before you invest your time, your money, and your energy into an entire semester’s class.

If only all teaching and learning was like this


It’s a nice idea this. Inside Higher Ed reports on this new(ish) website intended to offer a more rounded picture of academics’ approaches to teaching and learning:

Until now, college students mostly have relied on word of mouth, professors’ reputations, previous student evaluations and the often rude and anonymous comments (complete with a “hotness” ranking) on before choosing a professor for a particular class.

A 20-year-old sophomore at Northeastern University has hopes of changing all that with a new website called, a platform where individual professors can share information with prospective students by answering a few questions in a limited number of characters.

Daniel Abram, the student who started the website, said students often have an incomplete picture of professors before they decide on a class. He called it an “imperfect information” situation, where the information available may not be very relevant or polarized and anonymous (as in the case of a site like Rate My Professors). is certainly an interesting approach and much more constructive than the RateMyProfessors concept. However, given that it depends largely on academic staff themselves providing profiles it does seem unlikely that it will become anywhere near comprehensive. Numbers of institutions and profiles are small at the moment but it may yet take off.

Save 74% on your Doctorate!

Yes! Discounts galore – Groupon now does cheap PhDs

In these austere times, it is reassuring to note that internet innovation is coming to the rescue of hard pressed students who can’t afford the time or the high fees associated with serious doctoral studies. Groupon in Germany is offering a wide range of doctorates at very reasonable prices.

There really is a fantastic range of titles on offer including these:

… of Angel Therapy
… of Apologetics
… of Aromatherapy
… of Astral Projection
… of Church Administration
… of Dowsing
… of Esoteric Sciences
… of Exorcisms
… of Feng Shui
… of Gospel Music
… of Holistic Sciences
… of Homeopathy
… of Immortality
… of Metaphysical Sciences
… of Motivation
… of Paranormal Psychology
… of Parapsychology
… of Psychic Astrology
… of Religious Economics
… of Theocentric Communications
… of Transpersonal Communications
… of Ufology

All it takes is a small donation…

Die Miami Life Development Church verleiht gegen eine milde Spende den kirchlichen Ehrendoktor-, den Ehren-Professortitel oder beide – Er darf dank Zusatz h.c. (honoris causa) weltweit offiziell geführt werden

„Is’ was, Doc?“ So cool kann man sich künftig von den neidischen Freunden ansprechen lassen, ohne sich mit fremden Federn schmücken zu müssen. Denn mit einem kirchlichen Ehrendoktortitel für zum Beispiel Metaphysik oder Aromatherapie von Doktortitel steht der Zusatz h.c. völlig zu Recht vor dem Vor- und Nachnamen

Yet another example of disruptive innovation in higher education? Or a bit of a con? You decide. “What’s up Doc?” indeed.
(With thanks to David Simpson, @dvdsmpsn, for the spot.)