eTextBooks Europe

I went to a meeting for stakeholders interested in the eTernity (European textbook reusability networking and interoperability) initiative. The hope is that eTernity will be a project of the CEN Workshop on Learning Technologies with the objective of gathering requirements and proposing a framework to provide European input to ongoing work by ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC36, WG6 & WG4 on eTextBooks (which is currently based around Chinese and Korean specifications). Incidentally, as part of the ISO work there is a questionnaire asking for information that will be used to help decide what that standard should include. I would encourage anyone interested to fill it in.

The stakeholders present represented many perspectives from throughout Europe: publishers, publishing industry specification bodies (e.g. IPDF who own EPUB3, and DAISY), national bodies with some sort of remit for educational technology, and elearning specification and standardisation organisations. I gave a short presentation on the OER perspective.

Many issues were raised through the course of the day, including (in no particular order)

  • Interactive and multimedia content in eTextbooks
  • Accessibility of eTextbooks
  • eTextbooks shouldn’t be monolithic and immutable chunks of content, it should be possible to link directly to specific locations or to disaggregate the content
  • The lifecycle of an eTextbook. This goes beyond initial authoring and publishing
  • Quality assurance (of content and pedagogic approach)
  • Alignment with specific curricula
  • Personalization and adaptation to individual needs and requirements
  • The ability to describe the learning pathway embodied in an eTextbook, and vary either the content used on this pathway or to provide different pathways through the same content
  • The ability to describe a range IPR and licensing arrangements of the whole and of specific components of the eTextbook
  • The ability to interact with learning systems with data flowing in both directions

If you’re thinking that sounds like a list of the educational technology issues that we have been busy with for the last decade or two, then I would agree with you. Furthermore, there is a decade or two’s worth of educational technology specs and standards that address these issues. Of course not all of those specs and standards are necessarily the right ones for now, and there are others that have more traction within digital publishing. EPUB3 was well represented in the meeting (DITA is the other publishing standard mentioned in the eTernity documentation, but no one was at the meeting to talk about that) and it doesn’t seem impossible to meet the educational requirements outlined in the meeting within the general EPUB3 framework. The question is which issues should be prioritised and how should they be addressed.

Of course a technical standard is only an enabler: it doesn’t in itself make any change to teaching and learning; change will only happen if developers create tools and authors create resources that exploit the standard. For various reasons that hasn’t happened with some of the existing specs and standards. A technical standard can facilitate change but there needs to a will or a necessity to change in the first place. One thing that made me hopeful about this was a point made by Owen White of Pearson that he did not to think of the business he is in as being centred around content creation and publishing but around education and learning and that leads away from the view of eBooks as isolated static aggregations.

For more information keep an eye on the eTernity website

Moving on…

After twelve years, I’ve decided to leave CETIS and I finish today. In my final blog post, I just thought I’d share with you with a couple of things that have really stood out for me during my time as an e-learning technologist. I had thought about reviewing the changes in e-learning technologies over the past twelve years – and there have been huge changes: tablets (and phablets), MOOCs, Moodle, and ebooks, to name but a few. But the technology isn’t important, that will always change. What is important is the people who try and make that technology work for the benefit of the student.

I have admired and been inspired by the sheer dedication, passion and hard work of staff, who are trying to make the tertiary education experience better for students, despite a myriad of challenges. This work is often unheralded and yet has a huge impact. It’s been a joy working with so many wonderful people.

I have also loved seeing people collaborate, both in the accessibility and relationship management arenas. It’s not always easy to share issues and experiences with potential competitors and yet when staff at different institutions do come together to do this, the student and the institution are left the richer. It been a pleasure to bring people together via the Accessibility SIG (Special Interest Group) and the JISC Relationship Management Programme and to see relationships grow and blossom.

I don’t have any plans as yet, which is somewhat scary and exciting at the same time and I feel a bit like Mr Benn, with a whole world of adventure before me. Of course, I will miss my CETIS colleagues, we’ve been through a lot together, and so rather than say goodbye, I’d just like to say remember the good times and celebrate!

Relationship Management: Communicate, communicate, communicate

This is the first in a series of posts based on the Compendium of Good Practice in Relationship Management in Higher and Further Education, written by myself and Lou McGill. The Compendium will be made available shortly, but I thought I’d post up a few samples to whet your appetite.

Increased and improving use of electronic communication tools across a wide spectrum give the greatest number of contact opportunities for the widest number of students, representing increased capability.” (Moore, I. and Paull, A. (2012). JISC Relationship Management Programme – Impact Analysis: Strands 2 and 3. (Not publicly available)

Communication is at the very heart of relationship management and is linked strongly with both staff and student well-being. Staff working in student support services, for example, recognise this, but do not always have the resources to provide effective support to everyone. It is not only communication between the institution and students that is important, but also communication between different departments and staff roles. Some processes, such as recording mitigating circumstances where emails are triggered at different stages, can be quite complex.

Students prefer a single communication channel to multiple emails and sources for accessing support services. When developing digital resources for student support, consider how students will interact with them and how communication with the support service will be handled; for example social media is ideal for presenting bite-sized pieces of information tailored to student requirements. Therefore:

  • resources should be designed to work on both computers and mobile devices, eg tablets and smartphones, so that students can access them any time, anywhere
  • self-check facilities, such as psychological assessment questionnaires, should be made available to help frame the context for support issues for both staff and students and personal online feedback should also be provided once any self-check questionnaires have been completed
  • social media services, such as Twitter, Facebook and even email can help engage and inform students about support services; for example, the University of Sheffield’s Well Connected Twitter stream is followed by over 200 students
  • SMS (Short Messaging Service) texts can be used to send key information to students about their course or institution, as well as personalised information relating to bursaries, for example
  • consider the terminology being used; for example, both staff and students may have differing interpretations of words such as ‘placement’, ‘work experience’, or ‘internships’.

Feedback has shown that students favour using digital media for accessing student support services and information. They value resources that have the backing and authority of the institution as it can be trusted to provide dependable advice. Offering support services online can provide the following benefits:

  • Cost saving: For example, the University of Nottingham uses Mahara to communicate with students on placement, because it’s more efficient than sending individual emails to students; it also enables visibility and tracking of what has been communicated to students
  • Informs potential students: online information, such as blogs, can inform potential students and can be reused by staff for guidance, marketing and recruitment
  • Provides a channel for communication for staff-student and student-student online conversations
  • Promotes sharing: staff and students can share information when it is all in one place.
  • using web based social and professional networking tools can reduce challenges around data ownership and institutional support requirements and takes advantage of systems that students and alumni may already use for career and personal development

When developing digital resources for students, internal communication for staff must be open and inclusive. One way to ensure this is to include representatives from a variety of backgrounds (such as faculty, IT, Student Services, Registry, Statistics Units, Students’ Union etc) and talk to stakeholders on their terms. This approach can strengthen collaboration across departments (and even across institutions). It will also encourage ownership, stimulate creativity and provide multiple perspectives and solutions.

Digital resources that provide student support can be marketed to students using a variety of formats from conventional posters and flyers to messages sent out through social media, such as via Student Union Facebook newsfeeds, which can reach thousands of students. Timing is important, so it is important to focus on times when students need this information most, for example at the beginning of the academic year and exam time. Institutional branding is important as students view any university branded support service, as comforting, supportive, reliable and trustworthy.

Institutions can work with alumni to support final year students as they prepare for employment, particularly in the role of mentors, who can offer recent experience of the transition. This can alleviate some of the burden of student support provision from within the institution, but still requires appropriate management. Alumni can also act as important links in professional networks by introducing students to employers and other professionals.

Professional networking, particularly that with a strong discipline focus, can be supported by institutions to maintain connections with alumni and help to consolidate links with employers. Integrating this aspect into student modules also serves to connect students to important networks before they leave and helps them maintain links with the institution once they have graduated. For example, Aston University has integrated:

“…business engagement content into the new website. Stakeholders can now get direct access to relevant business contacts, case studies, and partnership opportunities.” (Pymm, S. (2012). A Report on the implementation of AstonConnect+. Aston University)

How to approach communication and networking

  • Internal communication for staff must be open and inclusive
  • Talk to stakeholders on their terms
  • Consider how students will interact digital resources for support and how communication with the support service will be handled
  • Tailor information and the communication method to student requirements
  • Consider the terminology being used
  • Design resources to work on computers and mobile devices
  • Use self-check facilities and provide personal online feedback once completed
  • Use social media services to engage and inform students
  • Focus effort on the time of year when students need particular types of information most
  • Institutional branding is important
  • Integrate professional networking into the curriculum
  • Work with alumni to support final year students as they prepare for employment

Further information

The MOOC just got better!

I’ve just finished Stanford University’s HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) MOOC (see my previous post MOOC is not a dirty word… at least for the student). Personally, I’ve found it a very enjoyable, but challenging experience (due to my lack of skills, but isn’t that the whole point of learning?).

The course tutor rounded off the course with a short video of his reflections. For those of you who like facts and figures:

  • 29,568 students watched at least some of the video lectures
  • 20,443 students did at least one of the automatically marked multiple choice quizzes
  • 3,203 students completed at least one of the assignments
  • 765 students completed all 5 assignments
  • students came from all around the world, with at least 130 countries being represented.

As students, we’ve had ample opportunity to provide feedback to the teaching team about the Coursera platform and the course as a whole. That feedback has been acted on quickly with tweaks being made to class materials or assignments, while students are still working on them. MOOCs therefore offer an agile solution that takes the student’s needs into account.

It hasn’t just been a one-way transaction. As a student, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from both the teaching team and my peers. The teaching team has also learnt from the students, who have shared resources, reading lists, articles, etc and helped other students. Taking an online course doesn’t mean that the student is isolated. Many students have held their own meet-ups, either face-to-face or virtually. You could say, using the classic cybernetics term, that they were part of a self-organising system, building up communities to support and help each other long after the course has finished.

Just one year ago, there was no Coursera. So everything I’ve used on the course has been created over a very short period of time. But you wouldn’t know. Aside from a few bugs and minor niggles, the whole thing ran very smoothly. One thing to note is that Stanford doesn’t need to run this course. It already has a great reputation, but that hasn’t stopped the teaching team from working hard to pull together the content and make it freely available to everyone.

And now the MOOC has just got better. I’ve just had an email from Coursera to tell me that it now has a Career Service to help Coursera students find jobs. Should I wish to take part (and I may need to shortly), they will share my details with selected partner companies (likely to be US based). This could be good for me as a student, although it’s not without concerns. In the (probably very near) future, a company could cherry pick the best students from online courses, because they’ll be able to follow students with potential as they submit their coursework. They may even influence the course itself. Coursera will no doubt get its revenue from acting as a matchmaking service. However, this needs to be handled carefully. Issues could include companies bombarding students with advertising, a limited pool of companies being able to select students (but who wouldn’t be flattered to be offered a job by the likes of Google or Apple?), US only companies, companies that only support (financially?) Stanford (or other Coursera universities), etc. It’s not without its potential difficulties. However, from a student point of view, it seems like a great idea.

So did I finish the course? I certainly did and can now quite legitimately say that I have a Distinction from Stanford University!

MOOC is not a dirty word… at least for the student

Photo of a mortar board hat and scrollThere seems to be a lot of animosity toward MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) at the moment, mostly it seems because they don’t offer the same experience as a traditional on-campus course and because of the issues around assessment.

But I wonder how many of those nay-sayers have actually taken a MOOC? From a student point of view, a MOOC is a wonderful opportunity to try something for free, with no obligation if it doesn’t work out, or if circumstances force a change of mind.

So I’ve taken off my e-learning hat and I’m writing this from a student point of view. I’m currently doing Stanford University’s HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) course. As I live in a rural area and work full-time, there is no other way that I would be able to access such a course. I’m not doing it for the “statement of accomplishment”, which if I complete the course, I’ll get at the end (although that carrot does help). I’m doing it for my own personal development, skills upgrading and enjoyment. In any case, I wouldn’t be able to take such a course in my own time at my own institution.

As I said in my previous post, MOOCs and Carrots back in September, the types of students on these courses are not students who would normally be able to study in a campus setting. People seem to be taking such courses to upgrade or complement their existing skills or even just for the challenge. There are mothers with young children, housebound people, people with disabilities, people who don’t live anywhere near an educational institution, unemployed people, etc. Not only that, people can take each week’s module whenever they want, wherever they want. Be it at 9pm at night when the children have gone to bed or on the train on the way to a meeting. These are non-traditional students who would be unable to attend a class in a traditional setting.

The HCI course is peer-reviewed, which I think is a sticking point for many educationalists. This is not without its challenges from both a student and educationalist perspective as some of the forum posts testify. However, as a student, it enables me to see other students’ work and how they have approached a particular task. The learning comes not just from following the video lectures and attempting each week’s practical assignment, it comes from what my peers say about my work as well as from what I can observe in theirs.

One student asked if the online HCI course was any different to the one that Stanford’s own on-campus students take. Both online and on-campus students have the video lectures (although some are done physically by the on-campus staff), the on-campus students have 10 weeks to complete the course (online students have 9), on-campus students also have an hour’s lab time per week (presumably with some sort of assistance from staff), and of course on-campus students’ work is assessed by teaching staff. In both cases, the content is the same.

Some students do want that (electronic) piece of paper at the end, perhaps for the prestige of successfully completing a Stanford course (the type of statement of accomplishment depends on the student’s average marks for the course) or for demonstrating to their employers that they have completed it. Many other students are completing the course at their own pace (it is quite intensive) and are doing it because they want to learn about HCI in their own time and their own way. For them, a MOOC is a way to facilitate that – they get the guidance and support they need but there is no fear of failing or dropping out, as the course can always be taken again next time or over an extended period of time. For many students, the learning goal is not a piece of paper, but the acquisition of a new skill or undertaking a personal challenge.

Institutions and educationalists should not look at the MOOC as a threat to the sector (at least not yet), because the type of people taking these online classes are generally not able (for whatever reason) to take a traditional on-campus course. It may be some time before the assessment side of things is robust enough to enable students to receive proper accreditation.

MOOCs do fill a need, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many thousands of people flocking to take them (the other course I’m taking has over 34,000 students registered). So before, we look at MOOCs in a negative light, let’s look at it from the student point of view. After all, as educationalists, isn’t that who we’re here to serve?

Student Retention: Mental Health at the University of Sheffield

Photo of a brass compassThe DCSMH (Digital Communication and Student Mental Health) project at the University of Sheffield has created a website, Well Connected, which provides a library of self-help resources, a self-check facility, and social media functions for supporting students with mental health difficulties.


Many HE (Higher Education) institutions are facing increased demand from students for mental health services. There are increasing numbers of students with complex difficulties, so the institution needs to be able to promote mental health support effectively. The challenges include:

  • students with mild difficulties may not be prioritised for face-to-face support whilst those with more severe difficulties do not always access the services provided
  • the area of mental health can be a sensitive topic for the institution, staff and students, which needs careful handling
  • increased demand for mental health services means that traditional face-to-face support is becoming severely stretched.


The Well Connected website, which was co-created with students, has provided benefits for both staff and students:

  • non-clinical student support and academic staff feel more confident in their response to students with mental health difficulties
  • the site includes a validated online self-check or referral tool which may help students wary of contacting mental health support services to make the first step to getting help
  • using digital communications to keep students informed can relieve pressure on physical support services and provide a channel for communication messages of wellbeing, especially at particular times of the academic year.


During the project, feedback from students has shown that they favour digital media for finding out about mental health issues. However,

  • don’t underestimate the strength of institutional branding and authority; for example because the Well Connected website has the University’s stamp of approval, students feel that they can rely on it and that it can be trusted
  • ensure that training is put in place for support staff in the use of any online resources
  • although online support resources can relieve some of the pressure on face-to-face support staff, remember that there will be additional work required in the support and maintenance of an online resource and in managing communication campaigns.

Further Information

If you would like to find out more about this project, the following resources may help:

What is my work?

Is there a good term for my specialist area of work for CETIS? I’ve been trying out “technology for learner support”, but that doesn’t fully seem to fit the bill. If I try to explain, reflecting on 10 years (as of this month) involvement with CETIS, might readers be able to help me?

Back in 2002, CETIS (through the CRA) had a small team working with “LIPSIG”, the CETIS special interest group involved with Learner Information (the “LI” of “LIPSIG”). Except that “learner information” wasn’t a particularly good title. It was also about the technology (soon to be labelled “e-portfolio”) that gathered and managed certain kinds of information related to learners, including their learning, their skills – abilities – competence, their development, and their plans. It was therefore also about PDP — Personal Development Planning — and PDP was known even then by its published definition “a structured and supported process undertaken by an individual to reflect upon their own learning, performance and/or achievement and to plan for their personal, educational and career development”.

There’s that root word, support (appearing as “supported”), and PDP is clearly about an “individual” in the learner role. Portfolio tools were, and still are, thought of as supporting people: in their learning; with the knowledge and skills they may attain, and evidence of these through their performance; their development as people, including their learning and work roles.

If you search the web now for “learner support”, you may get many results about funding — OK, that is financial support. Narrowing the search down to “technology for learner support”, the JISC RSC site mentions enabling “learners to be supported with their own particular learning issues”, and this doesn’t obviously imply support for everyone, but rather for those people with “issues”.

As web search is not much help, let’s take a step back, and try to see this area in a wider perspective. Over my 10 years involvement with CETIS, I have gradually come to see CETIS work as being in three overlapping areas. I see educational (or learning) technology, and related interoperability standards, as being aimed at:

  • institutions, to help them manage teaching, learning, and other processes;
  • providers of learning resources, to help those resources be stored, indexed, and found when appropriate;
  • individual learners;
  • perhaps there should be a branch aimed at employers, but that doesn’t seem to have been salient in CETIS work up to now.

Relatively speaking, there have always seemed to be plenty of resources to back up CETIS work in the first two areas, perhaps because we are dealing with powerful organisations and large amounts of money. But, rather than get involved in those two areas, I have always been drawn to the third — to the learner — and I don’t think it’s difficult to understand why. When I was a teacher for a short while, I was interested not in educational adminstration or writing textbooks, but in helping individuals learn, grow and develop. Similar themes pervade my long term interests in psychology, psychotherapy, counselling; my PhD was about cognitive science; my university teaching was about human-computer interaction — all to do with understanding and supporting individuals, and much of it involving the use of technology.

The question is, what does CETIS do — what can anyone do — for individual learners, either with the technology, or with the interoperability standards that allow ICT systems to work together?

The CETIS starting point may have been about “learner information”, but who benefits from this information? Instead of focusing on learners’ needs, it is all too easy for institutions to understand “learner information” as information than enables institutions to manage and control the learners. Happily though, the group of e-portfolio systems developers frequenting what became the “Portfolio” SIG (including Pebble, CIEPD and others) were keen to emphasise control by learners, and when they came together over the initiative that became Leap2A, nearly six years ago, the focus on supporting learners and learning was clear.

So at least then CETIS had a clear line of work in the area of e-portfolio tools and related interoperability standards. That technology is aimed at supporting personal, and increasingly professional, development. Partly, this can be by supporting learners taking responsibility for tracking the outcomes of their own learning. Several generic skills or competences support their development as people, as well as their roles as professionals or learners. But also, the fact that learners enter information about their own learning and development on the portfolio (or whatever) system means that the information can easily be made available to mentors, peers, or whoever else may want to support them. This means that support from people is easier to arrange, and better informed, thus likely to be more effective. Thus, the technology supports learners and learning indirectly, as well as directly.

That’s one thing that the phrase “technology for learner support” may miss — support for the processes of other people supporting the learner.

Picking up my personal path … building on my involvement in PDP and portfolio technology, it became clear that current representations of information about skills and competence were not as effective as they could be in supporting, for instance, the transition from education to work. So it was, that I found myself involved in the area that is currently the main focus of my work, both for CETIS, and also on my own account, through the InLOC project. This relates to learners rather indirectly: InLOC is enabling the communication and reuse of definitions and descriptions of learning outcomes and competence information, and particularly structures of sets of such definitions — which have up to now escaped an effective and well-adopted standard representation. Providing this will mean that it will be much easier for educators and employers to refer to the same definitions; and that should make a big positive difference to learners being able to prepare themselves effectively for the demands of their chosen work; or perhaps enable them to choose courses that will lead to the kind of work they want. Easier, clearer and more accurate descriptions of abilities surely must support all processes relating to people acquiring and evidencing abilities, and making use of related evidence towards their jobs, their well-being, and maybe the well-being of others.

My most recent interests are evidenced in my last two blog posts — Critical friendship pointer and Follower guidance: concept and rationale — where I have been starting to grapple with yet more complex issues. People benefit from appropriate guidance, but it is unlikely there will ever be the resources to provide this guidance from “experts” to everyone — if that is even what we really wanted.

I see these issues also as part of the broad concern with helping people learn, grow and develop. To provide full support without information technology only looks possible in a society that is stable — where roles are fixed and everyone knows their place, and the place of others they relate to. In such a traditionalist society, anyone and everyone can play their part maintaining the “social order” — but, sadly, such a fixed social order does not allow people to strike out in their own new ways. In any case, that is not our modern (and “modernist”) society.

I’ve just been reading Herman Hesse’s “Journey to the East” — a short, allegorical work. (It has been reproduced online.) Interestingly, it describes symbolically the kind of processes that people might have to go through in the course of their journey to personal enlightenment. The description is in no way realistic. Any “League” such as Hesse described, dedicated to supporting people on their journey, or quest, would practically be able to support only very few at most. Hesse had no personal information technology.

Robert K. Greenleaf was inspired by Hesse’s book to develop his ideas on “Servant Leadership“. His book of that name was put together in 1977, still before the widespread use of personal information techology, and the recognition of its potential. This idea of servant leadership is also very clearly about supporting people on their journey; supporting their development, personally and professionally. What information would be relevant to this?

Providing technology to support peer-to-peer human processes seems a very promising approach to allowing everyone to find their own, unique and personal way. What I wrote about follower guidance is related to this end: to describe ways by which we can offer each other helpful mutual support to guide our personal journeys, in work as well as learning and potentially other areas of life. Is there a short name for this? How can technology support it?

My involvement with Unlike Minds reminds me that there is a more important, wider concept than personal learning, which needs supporting. We should be aspiring even more to support personal well-being. And one way of doing this is through supporting individuals with information relevant to the decisions they make that affect their personal well-being. This can easily be seen to include: what options there are; ideas on how to make decisions; what the consequences of those decision may be. It is an area which has been more than touched on under the heading “Information, Advice and Guidance”.

I mentioned the developmental models of William G Perry and Robert Kegan back in my post earlier this year on academic humility. An understanding of these aspects of personal development is an essential part of what I have come to see as needed. How can we support people’s movement through Perry’s “positions”, or Kegan’s “orders of consciousness”? Recognising where people are in this, developmental, dimension is vital to informing effective support in so many ways.

My professional interest, where I have a very particular contribution, is around the representation of the information connected with all these areas. That’s what we try to deal with for interoperability and standardisation. So what do we have here? A quick attempt at a round-up…

  • Information about people (learners).
  • Information about what they have learned (learning outcomes, knowledge, skill, competence).
  • Information that learners find useful for their learning and development.
  • Information about many subtler aspects of personal development.
  • Information relevant to people’s well-being, including
    • information about possible choices and their likely outcomes
    • information about individual decision-making styles and capabilities
    • and, as this is highly context-dependent, information about contexts as well.
  • Information about other people who could help them
    • information supporting how to find and relate to those people
    • information supporting those relationships and the support processes
    • and in particular, the kind of information that would promote a trusting and trusted relationship — to do with personal values.

I have the strong sense that this all should be related. But the field as a whole doesn’t seem have a name. I am clear that it is not just the same as the other two areas (in my mind at least) of CETIS work:

  • information of direct relevance to institutions
  • information of direct relevance to content providers.

Of course my own area of interest is also relevant to those other players. Personal well-being is vital to the “student experience”, and thus to student retention, as well as to success in learning. That is of great interest to institutions. Knowing about individuals is of great value to those wanting to sell all kinds of services to to them, but particularly services to do with learning and resources supporting learning.

But now I ask people to think: where there is an overlap between information that the learner has an interest in, and information about learners of interest to institutions and content providers, surely the information should be under the control of the individual, not of those organisations?

What is the sum of this information?

Can we name that information and reclaim it?

Again, can people help me name this field, so my area of work can be better understood and recognised?

If you can, you earn 10 years worth of thanks…

And the Winner Is … The UK

I have spent this week at the IMS Learning Impact Conference in Long Beach California. I’ve enjoyed the conference and sensed a remarkably fresh approach, amongst delegates and IMS alike, to standards and their role in educational technology. Overall I’d suggest a strong re- affirmation that the direction of travel we have been following in CETIS is very much on course. Lots of talk of openness, collaboration and Learner centred approaches (I’ll reflect on this in my next blog post). As is custom at this event the final activity, before workshops and working group meetings, is the annual Learning Impact Awards. It was something akin to the British (music) invasion of the early 1960′s with the UK dominating the platinum awards across all categories winners included The BBC for their accessibility tool kit ASK, Pebblepad and the Nottingham Xerte online toolkit Three out of the four main awards to the UK with two of these being accessibility tools.

Digital Inclusion what is the message ?

I have been closely monitoring with interest the activities and ongoing debate in respect of the UK governments activities in respect of the digital inclusion agenda.

Being brutally honest with the appointment of dot com entrepreneur Martha Lane- Fox as “Digital inclusion Champion” I was initially concerned how “inclusive” the agenda would be given Ms Lane-Fox’s largely privileged background, and whilst the jury still remains out, I have been impressed with much of the work done thus far, this despite Martha’s occasional dip into “apple pie and mother statements”. Her personal enthusiasm for the role is evident and has significantly raised the profile of digital inclusion arguably the “lions share “ of the challenge facing us.

I read with interest this morning’s published data from PWC relating to the “benefits of getting everyone online in the UK are GBP22billion” and this has served to highlight some issues I have with the focus of the undertaking.


Perhaps I’m being a little disingenuous as I have not had the benefit of reading the whole of the PWC report but it does have the taint of many of those presented by management consultants, justifying their own role, importance and significance in the activity leading to the inevitable further commissioning of work.

The report does highlight the issue that over 10million adults across the UK have never used the internet and of these 4million are “socially excluded” a definition of which is not at present provided of this number (4million) 39% are over 65, 38% are unemployed and 19% families with children. In the draft there is no mention of those with disability or accessibility challenges which in itself is quite concerning. The report then goes further in presenting questionable data in respect of lifetime savings.

There is a real conflict in the duality of the aims and motivation in undertaking “Digital inclusion” activity. There is a compelling argument, no doubt supported by the treasury in these uncertain economic times, of ‘savings “ of GBP900million pounds in “customer contact costs” however they may be defined.

There are arguments and some data supporting the notion of the potential benefits accrued by those digitally included in society. We must when highlighting the benefits also equip, in a measured non alarmist way, the “included” with the critical skills required to mange the inherent risks and danger of online activity in a balanced way.

From my perspective there is one key word that seems to be missing form the report though I hope not the debate that of “choice”.

Digital inclusion should primarily be about choice, the informed choice of individuals how to participate (or not) in (digital) society.

Kevin Kelly talks about possessing the ability to “switch off” from the digital world to counteract arguments of technological determinism. If the inclusion strategy is about choice, widening accessibility, voluntary participation and improvement in the population’s digital literacy I’m fully behind it. If it is about compulsion to participate I’m not we (and the govt) need to be much clearer about this.

I’m sure that I would be classified as one of the digitally included and thankful I am but I choose not to use any number of digital services including Online banking, tax file systems, payment for local council services etc etc and I choose from a position of being informed. My father (one of the digitally excluded over 65’s mentioned in the report) chooses to be digitally excluded, despite my best efforts to provide him with technology and inform him of the benefits inclusion would bring to him. He chooses to walk to the post office to pay his council tax monthly as it, I quote, “gets me out of the house, I like to walk and meet my fiends on the way and in the post office”. these are his informed choices.

The primary motivation behind digital inclusion should be to provide access, educate inform and prepare citizens to improve levels of digital literacy alongside the ambitions to broaden access to the technology.

This should be done with honesty with the aim of providing all UK citizens with skills and ability to make informed choices to the extent, which they may wish to participate in (digital) society.

Offender eLearning: an issue of accessibility?

Prompted by my discovery of the Learning and Skills Council funded Offender Learning and Skills Service, I attended a NIACE conference in Bradford at the beginning of the month concerned with e-learning for offenders. Offender learning covers a wide range of institutions from Category A prisons to institutions providing support for non-custodial offenders.

The priority for all custodial institutions is security. Prison governors have tremendous authority and are obviously nervous about the use of the internet and other means of communications, In most institutions CDs and pen drives are banned, necessitating tightly controlled computer networks (where they exist at all).  

The requirements for offender learning in order to assist rehabilitation and a reduction in re-offending are clear.

It has been well publicised that a significant proportion of offenders require basic literacy and numeracy education. Less well known is the need for English as a second language courses. In London 50% of inmates are foreign nationals.

Craft workshops in prisons need to replicate those in the real world and therefore require appropriate technology. Timetabling of traditionally delivered courses can so often be affected by the logistics of prison management. e-Enabled distance learning could offer solutions.  

Many who are near to being released after long sentences need interactive simulations (such as for the use of cash machines) to prepare them for a different kind of world from the one in place when they started their sentence. Employability and the need for inmates to obtain evidence to build positive images of themselves for prospective employers is becoming increasingly important.  

The focus on the need for security, though, means that technological solutions have to be tailored to individual environments within a context of the need for confidence by institutional managers and governors. The picture is somewhat clouded by the role of the private sector who have responsibility for 30% of provision and have strict service level agreements (which currently are unlikely to include elearning) with the Home Office. 

Offender Learning is not just a Learning and Skills Council agenda. It must also be remembered that there are many prisoners studying for Open University degrees and there are other obvious opportunities for HEIs to deliver professional development programmes to an expanding and captive market (sorry!). In an environment where prisoners with Masters degrees are studying level 2 (GCSE) programmes to meet LSC targets, HE should be becoming more engaged. 

There are the seeds of infrastructural developments that are helping.

Within the need for security, some institutions such as Wormwood Scrubs are developing computer equipped learning centres. Learndirect have installed online centres with limited online external assessment facilities that have satisfied the concerns of governors.

The Learner Summary Record is being piloted to provide both on and off line summaries of learning outcomes and results and a record of action planning discussions. This will be linked to the Unique Learner Number and with the permission of the ‘owner’ will be capable of being shared with other agencies once a sentence is completed to enhance employability prospects.  

POLARIS, a VLE service with limitations (no internet links) is being piloted  for a handful of London institutions. Electronic whiteboards that in addition to showing tutor input, also displays the current screens of the students are available to enable the tutor to monitor for inappropriate use. 

So where can JISC help? 

There is a promise of government activity in this area and our advice will be sought. 

A few suggestions: 

Firstly we should recognise that there are many prospective HE students within our prisons and offender institutions.

Secondly we should look  at tailoring those (often JISC funded) technological mainstream solutions that satisfy both prison governor’s needs for security and the offender’s needs for learning and future employability. Systems that will enable national services that can provide only the  ‘approved’ URLs that can be accessed by inmates; tools that more effectively monitor computer usage; the provision of appropriate learning simulations and interactions and the provision of secure information and guidance services linked to employment are just a few ideas for consideration. There must be many more.

Finally, should we not be expanding our accessibility agenda to include offenders within our penal system?