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Rise of the Robots?

Some while ago I was reading a book about the future of universities in the digital age. One of its suggestions was that future institutions would be using ‘JITAITS’ – ‘just in time artificially intelligent tutors’. These ‘tutors’ would be advanced computer programs which would recognise questions from students and use algorithms to answer them. Even more advanced programs would detect problems a student was having online and intervene with appropriate actions.

I was reminded of this by a recent announcement from the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US that it had developed such a program for a course on – naturally – artificial intelligence (AI). The program is called ‘Jill Watson’ (as it used the IBM ‘Watson’ platform) and was developed over several years by looking at the questions posted on the course online discussion forums and feeding ‘Jill’ the answers. She (it) was pretty useless at first but it’s now claimed she (it) can answer students’ questions with a 97% certainty. Apparently students have only just learned that Jill is a program but are happy with the discovery.

Another recent online teaching development involves using webcams. The idea is that a student’s webcam could be used to focus on the student’s face and use sophisticated software to detect when the student was experiencing difficulties. Presumably the program could analyse expressions such as puzzlement, frustration, boredom – even anger. The program would then send an appropriate response. Part of me toys with the idea that a mild electric shock delivered via the keyboard would work, but let me stay serious. For the OU is apparently working on such a program, although a commercial version already exists – see

I wonder, though, if the use of webcams this way is really a good idea. I’m reminded of the recent incident from Philadelphia in the US where a college generously gave all its students laptops with webcams. The college neglected to tell students (and their families) that it had retained the ability to switch the webcams on secretly. You can imagine the storm of protest when this was inevitably discovered. And ever since I learnt that it’s possible for scammers to turn on your webcam secretly I’ve kept a handy blob of Blu-Tack to put over mine when not using it.

So is your tutoring job at risk? Are you about to be replaced by an artificial intelligence program? Well, I checked back on the book I read and discovered that it had been published in 2003. So if it’s taken 13 years for the first fairly primitive ‘just in time artificially intelligent tutor’ to arrive then I wouldn’t worry just yet. And a report in 2013 on which jobs are most likely to be computerised in the next few years found that ‘higher education teacher’ was amongst the least likely to be automated. (‘Telemarketer’ was the most likely, but surely that’s already happened.) So I suspect that except for some fairly specific topics (such as AI) human beings will be needed in online education for many years to come.     

De-personalising the OU

For those of us to who worked and believed in the OU, the news of its financial difficulties in the THE last week (OU posts £7M loss) made wretched reading.  But the financial and recruitment issues are only part of the OU’s current problems, with a graduation rate now apparently down to only 13%

In a Brookings e-newsletter last month Ben Wildavesky, Director of Higher Education Studies at the Rockefeller Institute of Government in New York, wrote an article entitled  ‘The Open University at 45: What can we learn from Britain's distance education pioneer?’  Professor Wildavesky identified a number of critical OU innovations, but the one he picked out as ‘the OU’s biggest accomplishment’ was ‘Combining scale with personalization’.  He noted that ‘for many students… this personal relationship with an instructor is the key’.

But the university appears to be continuing with the policies of the previous Vice Chancellor Martin Bean which are eroding that personalisation.  The new policy of placing tutors in groups may mean that it’s likely that students will have less face-to-face time with their own tutor; increasing tuition group sizes (up to 100 students in one tutor group is possible) will also make it harder for students to have a individual relationship with their tutors.  And the new OU ‘Student Support Teams’ can never be personal in the way Professor Wildavesky means.

In addition older OU colleagues will remember that the OU had a role called a ‘Tutor-counsellor’, whose job was to support students throughout all their modules to graduation.  This was abolished on the grounds of both financial cost, and a finding that only about 10% of students had the same T-c throughout their study careers - largely because of staff changes.  But both these arguments were fallacious:  the cost argument because no-one looked into the financial benefits of increased student retention, and the continuity argument, because for that vital switch from first to second module (where most OU dropout now occurs), some 90% of students kept their T-c.

The OU Vice-Chancellor recently noted in his newsletter that student retention was not improving yet.  Sadly - and I hope I’m wrong - further depersonalisation of the OU will only make things worse. 

Is your university a ‘Darwinista’ ‘Fatalista’ or ‘Retentioneering’ institution?

Is your university a ‘Darwinista’  ‘Fatalista’ or ‘Retentioneering’ institution? 

After 50 years in the Higher Ed. Biz (as Tom Lehrer would call it) I’ve decided that universities fall into three groups.  There’s the:

‘Darwinista’ Group.  Staff in the Darwinista Group of universities believe that students drop out because they're not intelligent enough, unmotivated or lazy.  They see their role as principally maintaining academic standards.  Their typical comment - “We’re here to weed out the unfit”  In Professor Carole Dweck’s ‘Theory of Self’ they might be ‘Entity Theorists’ - they believe that intelligence is a fixed quantity and can’t be changed.

Then there’s the:

‘Fatalista’ Group.  Staff in the Fatalista Group of universities believe that students drop out for reasons beyond their control.  They see their role as to teach the best they can, but it’s then up to the students.  Their typical comment - “We must give students a good learning experience”.  When I hear that phrase I do occasionally mutter to myself that ‘the best learning experience you can give students is to pass their course’

Because I like to kid myself that I’m a ‘Retentioneer’.  Retentioneers believe that students most often fail because of loss of learning motivation due to lack of individual proactive support.  Their typical comment - “We should help students be as successful as they can be”.  In Professor Dweck’s theory Retentioneers might be ‘Incremental’ theorists - they believe that intelligence is malleable and can be changed by effort.

So - Darwinista, Fatalista or Retentioneer?  Obviously all teachers need to have Darwinista tendencies - who would want to be operated on by a brain surgeon who’d not reached their institution’s standards?  And most teachers are Fatalistas to the extent that they would like to teach as well as they can.  But we need to remember that, as someone once said, “No teacher can be certain that their teaching will cause a learner to learn”.  Unless we are proactive in reaching out to individual students to keep their learning motivation switched on, students will continue to drop out unnecessarily, with damage to themselves, their institutions and society as a whole.  In other words we all need to have a good ‘retentioneering’ streak.

You can check whether yours is predominantly a Darwinista, Fatalista or Retentioneering institution by going to and taking the test.

Closing the OU's Regional Centres

The closure of most of its Regional Centres is probably the biggest change in the OU since the introduction of e-teaching and will have equally far-reaching effects.  My first concern is for the many staff who simply cannot re-locate and will have to leave.  This is not only a great personal misfortune for them but will be a huge loss of expertise and knowledge to the OU.  I hope the change will be well-managed otherwise very damaging problems will rapidly ensue.

But what will be the repercussions of this move on student retention?  I presume that the savings (when they finally emerge) are to be devoted in part to enhancing the Student Support Teams, but I still remain a sceptic that this will have a substantial effect on student dropout. 

The biggest cause of the OU’s current 13% graduation rate is dropout between courses - some 60% of new students fail to progress onto a second module.  This of course is the critical point at which the SST’s are meant to have an effect.  But study is an intensely personal and emotional process and needs personal and individual support.  One of the reasons that in-course dropout is comparatively low at 30-40% is because AL’s provide that personal and individual support.  I just find it hard to believe that students - especially at the critical first to second course transition - will feel that that are getting that personal and individual support from a team.  The signs are already poor - a recent report (‘Snowball’ 2015) on the UK’s National Student Survey results noted that “OU managers will be disappointed that, after the first full year of student support teams, the university rating has slipped 31 places to 136th (out of 157 UK universities) for ‘Good advice was available when I needed to make study choices’”.   

Until the OU finds a way of ‘personalising’ not just support within a module, but support between modules, graduation rates will continue to drop and the savings from the closure of Regional Centres will prove to be illusory.

I have two new articles just out:

1. "Challenging the ‘distance education deficit’ through ‘motivational emails’" in ‘Open Learning'(2015) 

It’s a report of a retention project with the Law Programme in the University of London International Programmes. 


2. ‘My car is my Bond’ in the Commonwealth Educational Media Centre for Asia (CEMCA) Newsletter Vol 1 no 2 May 2015  

It's a short report of some research I've completed for the UKOU on the role of f2f teaching in distance education.  A full report is currently in reviewing for Open Learning. 

A letter the THE did publish:

This was in response to an anonymous letter that appeared in a previous THE edition about the UKOU's possible intention to close some of its regional centres.

Your anonymous correspondent who draws attention the potential closure of many of the OU’s regional centres regrets the loss of local presence.  But there is another serious implication - the move will inevitably lead to less face-to-face teaching.  The OU’s new VC has already called for the OU to become ‘more digital’.

Yet there is quite a lot of evidence that suggests that moving to exclusively online learning will have a strictly detrimental effect on student retention.  There is a widespread belief in many distance institutions that some initial f2f contact is necessary to enhance subsequent online work.  For example the Korean National Open University, where I worked a few years ago, insists that its students start their studies with a three day face-to-face session.  As it says in their student guide “To overcome the limitations of distant education and to encourage interactions between faculty members and students and also among students, KNOU requires its freshmen to take face to face classes at its regional campuses.”  This is despite the fact that South Korea has a far greater access to much higher speed internet than the UK.

If the OU does become ‘more digital’, then I’ve little doubt that its retention rates will continue to fall.  

Another letter the THE wouldn't publish...

The advert (with its ‘excellent package’) in the 18th September THE for the successor to  Martin Bean, the Open University’s Vice Chancellor, may not be a bad time to review the record of the UK’s most important distance university.  There can be little doubt about its achievements over the nearly 45 years since it opened.  As a teacher and researcher in the institution for forty of those years I’ve often come across many people who have found new lives and careers through their studies.

And yet…  When the OU started in 1971 the graduation rate for that first cohort of students was 59%.  Not as good as the roughly 80% for conventional UK universities, but not bad for an institution described by a then senior Conservative politician as ‘blithering nonsense’.  But since then the rate has been on an apparent remorseless decline - to 52% for 1976 entry, to 48% for 1981 entry, to 22% for 1997 entry (HEFCE data).  I understand that it may now be as low as 14% for 2001 entry (The historic nature of the data is because it can take up to 11 years for the substantial majority of students in a cohort to graduate).

If this 14% graduation figure for 2001 entry is correct then it raises a number of serious questions.  Why for instance is it so much lower than the average 80% graduation rate for UK full-time students?  Some would argue that it is the OU’s policy of open entry but this would probably only make a difference of 3-4% points.  Others would argue that many OU students are only interested in studying one or two particular modules or gaining intermediate qualifications.  That must be true although I’m unaware of evidence to support this happening on large enough a scale to alter the graduation rate to nearly a sixth of the full time rate.  And the same argument could be applied to UK part-time students at conventional UK universities, who nevertheless have a graduation rate of 39%. 

The cost of an initial 60 credit point OU module (300 credit points are needed to graduate) is now around £2500, a substantial sum to invest each year with only a 20% or less chance of eventually graduating and gaining a benefit from that investment.  Is there a ‘distance education deficit’ at the OU that the new Vice Chancellor will urgently need to address?       

MOOCS again

There were some interesting thoughts from Professor Diana Laurillard at the UALL conference in April this year.  She noted that MOOCS usually had a completion rate of 10% or less and that the dominant users were people who had degrees already (70% in the case of Edinburgh, 85% in the case of Coursera).  As she said, ‘the main users of MOOCS are highly qualified professionals - MOOCS are parasitic on university teaching paid for by undergraduates’.


This all suggests to me that the OU’s ‘FutureLearn’ is not a game changer, but a diversion of the OU’s main business of giving fee-paying students the best possible support for their studies.  With OU registrations down by 18% and the graduation rate around 22%, it’s not the time for the VC to be hiring speechwriter and getting a 10% rise in salary to £400,000 pa.   


The Student Loan Scheme

The news that the Government’s loan scheme is now likely to be as expensive than the system it replaced due to the amount of student debt that is now unlikely to be repaid, probably won’t surprise many people.


But the response that this may mean a reduction in teaching budgets and so a reduction in support to students, will be the wrong response.  Such a reduction is likely to increase levels of student dropout with a consequent increase in unrepayable debt and the entry into what bankers’ apparently call a ‘death spiral’.


It’s not difficult to show that investing in some kinds of student support can have a positive return on investment to universities as more students continue and go onto to pay further tuition fees.  The time to invest, as Warren Buffett says, ‘is in a down market’.

Closing an OU regional centre

News that the OU is to close one of its regional centres and review the existence of most of the others, may be more than a straw in the wind.  A similar review was carried out a few years ago, but came to the conclusion that at that time it was too expensive to close them. 


This time may be different – the appointment of a man from Microsoft as the OU’s VC was always likely to be a sign that the OU was going to move to entirely online provision.  After the abolition of the OU’s regional network will come the replacement of its expensive part-time staff with ‘JITAITS – ‘Just-In-Time Artificial Intelligence Tutors’ – who will pop up in the style of Microsoft’s late unlamented paperclip to offer help at suitable points in the online text.


The result of course will be an even higher drop out rate than the current 80%.  But as long as British universities get their money up front from student recruitment no-one will worry.  As Wernher Von Braun apocryphally says in Tom Lehrer’s song “’Ven zer rockets are up, who cares ver zey come down?  Zat’s not my department” says Wernher von Braun’.

Letter to Private Eye

Private Eye recently featured the Open University’s Vice Chancellor Martin Bean’s advert for a ‘speechwriter’ for a salary of £45,000 (Eye 1361).  

It set me wondering if the money would not be better spent on someone to look into why the OU’s graduation rate has fallen from 57% in the mid-seventies to around 22% more recently.

But then a Vice Chancellor on £407,000 obviously has a lot of things on his plate apart from his students…

The letter the THE wouldn't publish


I wrote the letter below to the Times Higher education a couple of weeks ago but it didn't get published.

More about MOOCS

"Professor Laurillard’s comments (THE 16th January) about MOOCs that the ‘simplistic models of MOOCS are not the answer’ to solving the problem of mass higher education was a welcome antidote to some of the hype that surrounds this topic.

 "The problem for me is that the term e-learning is often a ‘category error’.  What institutions are doing is ‘e-teaching’: ‘e-learning’ is what students are doing (or, as I will allege, often not doing very successfully).  The distinction is important because using the term e-learning encourages institutions to load up their virtual learning environments and MOOCS with all kinds of e-goodies such as podcasts, video clips, social software, and so on, without apparently being aware that this is really e-teaching, which may not necessarily lead to e-learning.

 "I say this because the evidence that e-teaching has led to substantial increases in student success is rather thin.  For example one of the principal exponents of e-teaching - the Open University - shows little signs that its e-emphasis has been a great success.  Its graduation rate has fallen steadily from 57% in the late 70’s using conventional correspondence materials, to 48% in the late 80’s and now down further to 22%  for the late 2000’s (HEFCE data), during which time it has gone largely over to e-teaching.  That drop may not be the direct result of that change, but it doesn’t suggest that e-teaching has been a huge triumph.

 "What we can safely say is that the ‘Open’ University’s move to e-teaching has excluded between 20% to 30% of the UK population who still don’t have effective internet access, and who are drawn largely from the most educationally under-privileged.  I’m not sure Jenny Lee would have approved.

 "But my main worry is the possible diversion of resources which are being directed into the OU’s MOOC ‘FutureLearn’.  Given that its fees are now the equivalent of £5000 a year, perhaps the University should be paying more attention to its registered students and ask if it really is possible to use e-teaching to increase their success, or whether there are more effective means."

My latest article in Open Learning is just out - 'Distance education: are we failing our students?'  The first 50 copies are available free from


This paper brings together some data on student retention in distance education in the form of graduation rates at a sample of distance institutions.  It suggests that there is a ‘distance education deficit’ with many distance institutions having less than a quarter of the graduation rates of conventional institutions.  It looks in some detail at the data for one well-known institution - the UK Open University - and surveys some of the reasons why such a deficit should occur and asks what the effects are on students, institutions and society as a whole.

The paper suggests that one reason for the deficit is the ‘category error’ of confusing teaching with learning, and that institutions have focused too much on the provision of teaching materials, especially online, and too little on motivating students to learn.  It maintains that there is accumulating evidence for the essentiality of proactive contact for overcoming dropout and the importance of making that contact motivational.  It claims that such an approach is financially viable and can make surpluses for the institutions concerned if carefully designed.

Finally whilst briefly surveying some of the new developments in distance  education in the form of MOOCS, learning analytics, and the use of smartphones, it suggests more speculatively that rather than resources or organization, the main barriers to increasing student success in distance education are institutional attitudes to student retention.  


Those distance education conferences

Well another EDEN conference has been and come and gone and is lauded as a great success on its website.  But as usual it seemed to be all about new technostuff for even more glitzy teaching and, as usual, there didn’t seem to be a mention of the poor students on the receiving end of all this stuff or how most of them seem to be failing - victims of the ‘distance education deficit’. 


Indeed it feels that distance educators at conferences seem to spend most of their time talking to each other about how wonderful the distance world is and how wonderful distance educators are with no reference to reality.


Ok, that’s very harsh.  There are many distance educators who are deeply concerned about retention and dropout.  But we need to make ourselves heard rather more.   

Can the UK Open University be radical about retention?

I’ve been a UK Open University Associate Lecturer (AL or ‘Adjunct faculty’ for US readers) for nearly 40 years on and off, so I’m daily expecting that letter from the nice people at Human Resources suggesting that I really ought to go - now. 

But before I go I see that retention is - again- on the university’s agenda.  It certainly should be - we now have new students coming in who will be taking out substantial loans to study, but with an 80% chance of never graduating - so never collecting any financial benefit from having a degree (the OU’s graduation rate is currently around 22%).  As these people accumulate in the population and maybe compare their situation with their near-contemporaries who went to conventional UK universities with their less than 20% chance of dropping out, will there be growing dissatisfaction with what the OU is offering?

So what is the University doing about this?  Well, there’s yet another reorganization coming up in the form of the ‘Student Support Teams’.  But these won’t make a difference because they still rely on a model of student support that is largely reactive - responding to contact from students.  As my guru Professor Edward Anderson says “Student self-referral does not work as a mode of promoting persistence.  Students who need services the most refer themselves the least”.  In addition I suspect that students won’t see a team as anything other than distant and impersonal, so even if there is a proactive contact from a team it will be largely ineffective. 

No, to make a real difference to retention the OU needs to replace its 40 year-old model of AL teaching and support.  It needs to recognise the paradox that teaching doesn’t materially affect retention - what it does is to enhance the performance of students who will probably progress anyway.  Students actually drop out for another reason - Anderson again; The best predictor of student retention is motivation.  Most students drop out because of reduced motivation.  Retention services need to clarify and build on motivation and address motivation-reducing issues.” 

Fortunately the OU has just the tool to build its students’ motivation - its AL workforce.  It needs its AL’s to do what they are supremely well-qualified to do - keeping students’ learning motivation switched on through individual proactive motivational support.  To do that it should:

·         Reduce the AL’s teaching load by reducing students group sizes, cutting Tutor Marked Assignment marking loads (Professor Graham Gibbs says the OU over-assesses its students anyway) and reducing tutorials (which often actually serve very few students).

·         Develop learning motivational models based on the work of psychologists such as Keller, Dweck, Seligman and others. The OU’s HQ at Milton Keynes is packed with talented psychologists, statisticians and educational experts in the faculties - set them to work on this.  Appoint a Professor of Learning Motivation to support the research.

·         Help AL’s develop motivational skills from those models and make it easier for them to make individual proactive contact with their students through mail and email merge systems, text-messaging from pc’s and so on (systems already used elsewhere in the world but not technologically fancy enough for the OU apparently). 

Yes, this will cost money.  But give me an hour or so with one of the OU’s accountants and I’ll use some simple maths to show them that investing in retention at various levels will actually make a profit for the OU, through increased fee income from more students going on.

In addition the OU could:

·         Repair the damage done to retention by some of the previous frankly silly decisions such as dropping the TMA payment - thereby ensuring that the harder an AL works to get TMA’s in, the less per hour they’re paid.  Quite a nudge in the wrong direction!

·         Stop obsessing about pouring money into new e-teaching initiatives (the term e-learning’ is a category error - what the OU does is ‘e-teaching’; e-learning is what we hope students do, but apparently often don’t).  Elluminate won’t illuminate retention.  Don’t rely on new technical solutions such as ‘learning analytics’ coming to the rescue.  That may be useful in the form of the ‘predictive model’ we invented in the regions years ago, but it can’t replace that personal, caring, proactive motivational contact that only AL’s can provide.

Yes, these are radical changes.  But radical changes are what’s now needed for the OU to meet the radical challenges presented by the new funding.


Is your institution a ‘Darwinista’  ‘Fatalista’ or ‘Retentioneering’ institution? 

Rate it using the questionnaire under 'Support for tutors and students' - 'Test Yourself (and your institution)!' on this website. 

'E-learning' or 'e-teaching?

‘E-learning’ or ‘E-teaching’?

I don’t know who invented the term ‘E-learning’ but it was both a streak of genius and a ‘category error’ (a phrase due to the philosopher Gilbert Ryle).  A category error is a semantic or ontological error in which "things of one kind are presented as if they belonged to another".  In this case the error is to confuse the intention with the result.  E-learning is what we hope students will do; ‘e-teaching’ is what distance institutions do to try to get that result.


This error is important because it allows for discussion about e-learning which concentrates on what institutions do online, but largely forgets the importance of assessing the result - what students do online.  As a result there seems to be little interest in outcomes - how many students are actually successful.  As Paul Ramsden (2003) says “No teacher can ever be certain that their teaching will cause a learner to learn”.  At the moments despite the huge and expensive efforts that go into e-teaching there is little evidence that there are great improvements in students’ e-learning as a result.         

MOOCS - are they the future for distance education?

MOOCS - are they the future for distance education?

There’s a lot of interest in Massive Online Open Courses at the moment like those run by Coursera.  These are open online courses that anyone can take for free altho’ they will generally have to pay to take an assessment for a qualification.

There seem to me to be a number of questions that should be looked at before assuming that MOOCS are the way forward for distance education:

1.       Dropout rates are high - most MOOCS so far have graduation rates of 10% or less.  Proponents argue that this doesn't matter as participation is open and dropout is unimportant for students who can pick and choose to come and go without penalty of any kind.

2.       Access is restricted to those with good internet connections such as the 75% of the UK population who have home broadband. Are MOOCS going to do much for the developing world - say in Africa where access even via smartphones is very low?  Or are we dealing with another example of digital exclusion?

3.       Are MOOC qualifications going to recognized by employers?  In other words what’s the resale value of a MOOC degree going to be?  Will assessments be sufficiently valid given the difficulties of identification on line?

4.       How are MOOCS going to financed?  A well-resourced MOOC will be expensive for institutions - will they make enough just out of assessment fees?  Or will they be seen as ‘loss-leaders’ for their main offerings?

5.       How will MOOCS build in motivational support for their students apart from online forums?  Evidence for the retention effectiveness of forums is hard to come by.    

There may be many other questions to be answered before we make MOOCs modish.

More successful students!

This blog is about my new book 'Supporting Students for Success in Online and Distance Education' to be published by Routledge New York on 17th December 2012

I'll be posting regularly from that date on issues about student retention and dropout in conventional and distance education.


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