Personalising education

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Sian Harris looks at the changing face of information resources and tools for higher-education students

An undergraduate student of a few decades ago might have headed off to a campus bookshop or perhaps a second-hand book sale armed with a list of core textbooks to support his course. He would also have visited the university library to make use of the shelves of books there. It is likely that the bound journals were mainly ignored until the student embarked on a final-year research project or chose to go on to do postgraduate research.

In the area of information for research, of course, there have been dramatic changes in recent decades: bibliographic databases moving online, electronic library catalogues, e-journals, e-books, digitised primary source collections, data posted publicly online to name a few.
But these changes to research information have not happened in isolation. The arguments for public access and funder access to published research are well trodden but there is another audience for the latest research results that is much closer to the lab – the undergraduate students within a university.

The internet has opened up opportunities to make links between raw data, published research and analysis in the form of blog posts and post-publication comment threads in ways that were not possible before.

This is a trend that Timo Hannay, managing director of technology business Digital Science, sees as very positive. The products of Digital Science’s portfolio companies are targeted at research but he noted that they are heavily used by students – although mainly postgraduate – and that there is plenty of potential to do more. ‘Research literature can really enhance undergraduate education,’ he observed.

Take Figshare, Digital Science’s data sharing platform, for example. Faculty members could use real datasets from such a resource to set data analysis homework. Indeed whole research projects could be set to find new patterns in openly-published datasets. ‘Being able to look at the experimental data is an incredibly important part of science education,’ he explained. ‘Part of what you need to learn as an undergraduate is how to use such tools. Being able to use a database is just as important as learning how to look something up in a journal.’

Similarly, in arts, humanities and social science subject areas, recent efforts to digitise a wide range of collections has opened up the possibility of using primary-source materials.
Adam Matthew, an independent subsidiary of SAGE, for example, specialises in digitised primary-source material such as historical manuscripts and maps. ‘We try to make all our collections useful and appeal to a wide range of users,’ said Jennifer Kemp, editorial director of Adam Matthew. ‘The predominant groups using our resources are undergraduates and graduate researchers involved in the humanities and social sciences from institutions worldwide. We definitely target undergraduates and see the materials used in research and classroom work. For example, a tutor might use primary-source material in lessons and then set a research task.’ This trend is quite new, she continued: ‘Ten years ago  when I did a history degree, archive sources like this really were not around. Availability of this type of content is a real opportunity for researchers and students, opening up access to material that was previously inaccessible. All of what we digitise is rare or unique.’

She noted, however, that there could be challenges in navigating such a body of primary-source content. For this reason the publisher helps provide routes into content by commissioning expert essays and adding additional features that contextualise primary-source content. She said that users engage most positively with image galleries, thematic exhibitions and video content.
‘Contextualisation is very important,’ she explained. ‘We are also putting effort into making it as discoverable as possible and are starting to make content discoverable through Google. Often that is the first port of call for users.’

And then there are reference management tools and the additional insight that they can bring into related resources. Another of Digital Science’s portfolio companies, ReadCube, provides annotation features for papers and plans to enable users to share their annotations. Hannay sees an application for this in, for example a lecturer asking their students to read a research paper and including their own annotations to help explain points or raise questions for the students to explore.

Digital Science’s Altmetric is embedded into ReadCube, as well as into many publisher platforms and tools, and Hannay said that this could also help students. ‘Altmetric is useful because it gives an idea of what other people are saying. It was done predominantly with researchers and authors in mind but it also has a wider educational role in directing people to accompanying commentary in things like blogs.

‘Science isn’t a body of facts; it’s a way to study the world,’ he continued. ‘It is important to develop critical thinking to determine what’s true. In some ways understanding a paper is the easy bit. It’s understanding the wider implications that is more difficult.’

Mark Siebert, senior manager of global academic relations at Elsevier, agreed: ‘Students are exposed to an abundance of research information that is available to them online, and learning how to discover, use and organise this information in a manageable way is a key issue. Many students are using social media as an additional discovery tool, and often organising their articles and chapters (from myriad sources) in new applications, often on mobile or tablet devices.’

He went on to say that there is an increased need to make sure that information retrieved is reliable. ‘The scholarly communication and peer-review system really helps provide that quality stamp – so it’s important to equip students with the knowledge about how to find and use reliable research.’

David Cox, head of digital publishing and development at Taylor & Francis, noted that publishers, aggregators, retailers and libraries are working very hard on trying to solve the issue of discoverability. ‘Many millions of pounds are being spent across the industry to gather, make consistent, and apply meaningful semantic metadata to content at the granular (article or chapter) level,’ he said.

And there is another group that is key to helping students wade through the information available to them, as Kiren Shoman, executive head of books at SAGE observed: ‘We must not forget the importance of faculty in helping students learn about tools and how to get the most out of their resources.’

The textbook
Of course, the textbook remains a key information tool for undergraduates – but even this has had a digital makeover. For many years textbooks have had companion websites. The level of material on these sites has grown over the years and often includes extra resources such as videos, simulations, case studies, tutorial material and self-assessment exercises.
‘It is also standard to have companion websites and they are seeing increasing usage. When we started to do companion websites at SAGE we embedded examples of relevant journal articles and found that this really excited faculty. Where journal articles are integrated with textbooks, students really engage with them,’ said Shoman.

And then there are e-books, and the ongoing question about whether they will replace print books.

‘Is print going to die? It’s true that we are in a digital revolution and there are a lot of opportunities but SAGE is still seeing really strong print performance,’ said Shoman. And this seems backed up by studies. For example, a recent report of US students by Outsell found that 86 per cent of students in the social sciences say that they prefer to access textbook content via print.

‘Our plan is not to lose print but to have both. We worked with Tom Chatfield, a British writer and technology theorist who said that good print beats bad digital. One of the ways that we do this is by making sure that our digital components complement print. Chatfield also said that print needs to know digital and digital needs to know print,’ continued Shoman.
Textbooks and other content in an electronic format does, however, open up new opportunities for universities. One of these is the inclusion of such resources in a university’s visual learning environment (VLE).

‘Sometimes institutions want materials embedded in their VLE and we have seen an increase in interest in e-textbook sales at an institutional level. Some universities want to offer a lot of material for free because of increased tuition fees. This has not been a request from a huge amount of universities yet but it feels like a trend,’ said Shoman.
‘With fees, students tend to regard their experience of higher education as a transaction – I’ve paid all this money; now what service are you going to provide for me in return? Within that, many students are unwilling to invest further in educational materials such as books,’ agreed Cox of Taylor & Francis.

This is a trend that Stuart Webster, technology solutions manager at Cengage, is also seeing. ‘In a price sensitive market, students see increased value in content provided by their institution either via the library or as a course resource. Increasingly students are challenging libraries to deliver content and tools that are relevant to them,’ he said.

In 2011 the psychology department of the UK’s University of Plymouth struck a deal with Cengage to enable the department to provide students with free access to 12 e-textbooks. The university has since begun working with Pearson on a similar agreement.
Palgrave Macmillan Higher Education is also keeping a close eye on this area. As the editorial and digital development team told Research Information, ‘Increasingly, since the introduction of student fees, they expect the core information sources to be provided by their institution, and to be disseminated in a joined up way through the VLE. More universities are using VLEs, often including deep links that take students to their own copy of a textbook, complete with the ability to access their own notes. Flexible business models allow universities to purchase core materials, such as the Palgrave Skills4StudyCampus resource, on behalf of their students and to integrate it into their VLE so that students can benefit from a single sign on.

Custom content
Another trend that people are seeing with the advent of widespread digital content is the demand for custom content.

‘Most publishers offer some type of custom publishing. Lecturers can look at a range of existing resources and choose, perhaps, a chapter from one thing and video from another. We are doing this more and more and custom products have become a much stronger offering for universities,’ observed Shoman of SAGE.

SAGE is also working with some of the UK’s new Q Step centres – centres of excellence in teaching quantitative methods in social sciences that are being launched at 15 universities, funded by HEFCE, ESRC and the Nuffield Foundation. Shoman explained that, among other things, the company is discussing the production of custom publications for the new courses that will start in September.

‘One of SAGE’s key and founding disciplines is within the field of research methods, and these partnerships are part of SAGE’s shared commitment, both with industry bodies and universities themselves to help facilitate change in both the teaching of and support of quantitative methods in the UK,’ she said.

Assisting interaction
Interactive elements of digital content are also attracting attention more today. ‘We remember and intuitively understand more of what we learn when we learn actively. Interactive pedagogy is at its most useful not when it’s there for interest, variety or as a selling point but when it fundamentally reflects the logic of your content. That’s when an activity makes sense to the person doing it,’ explain the Palgrave team.

‘If you provide interactive features for the sake of being interactive, you’ll find that people would rather have a straightforward page of well-formatted text. Far better to provide learners with an exercise that chunks information naturally and progresses in a similar way to the processes they are learning about. It’s much more instructive and satisfying. Interaction design will continue to improve to make greater use of touchscreen devices, cameras, voice recognition, cloud data and new input devices. Everyone has a preferred learning style, so it would be ideal if learners in the near future could choose how they interact with information,’ they continue.

Cox of Taylor & Francis agreed: ‘For some instructors and students, features like interactive quizzes and animations are crucially important. For others, they are not needed. It varies by subject area and level – but, in the most part, it varies at the individual level. It’s about allowing the choice.’

Providing interactive elements can also help to guide teaching. ‘Helping faculty to understand student behaviour is one of the exciting things about this type of interaction. Lecturers can see how students perform on tests and then can go over things that people struggle with,’ observed SAGE’s Shoman.

However, this comes with a caveat about privacy and what is being done with such data. ‘Faculty has to make clear to students what tools do and what they expect from students,’ she added.

Webster of Cengage observed that such features can also make the process more efficient for both learners and teachers: ‘It is clear from student surveys that students are looking for improvements in assessment. New learning technologies can be harnessed to increase student satisfaction rates in assessment. For instance, assessment technologies now automate marking, provide feedback to students who have made mistakes and randomise questions. Automation is key here, because it frees up tutor time and enables students and tutors to rethink their contact time and reorganise it around higher forms of learning,’ he said.

This is one area that MacMillan New Ventures is looking at with its investment in Sapling Learning, a tool that provides online questions, instant specialised feedback on common mistakes and interactive grading in a range of STEM subjects at an undergraduate level. As Troy Williams, president of MacMillan New Ventures, explained, ‘if you have a long delay between doing some work and having it marked and returned you don’t really look at it other than to see the grade.

In contrast, he said: ‘Sapling has hired people with PhDs in the relevant subjects who write the questions, anything up to 2000 questions for a subject. The instructor can also write their own questions and Sapling can write questions to specifications, which then are available to all customers. Students love it and professors don’t have to spend time writing homework or marking it.’ He added that students who use Sapling outperform those who don’t.
Another tool that he said is making a difference to student outcomes is the company’s student response system iClicker. Such tools help to make lectures more interactive; during lectures teaching staff can ask students questions that apply their knowledge. ‘It is about providing feedback loops, especially in large courses. Sometimes there are 1000+ students in a lecture so it is hard to get instructor feedback.’

The company also has a product called Late Night Labs that enables students to carry out virtual experiments using virtual versions of the equipment they use in their physical lab. ‘The outcomes are not hardwired. Late Night Labs calculates responses based on the database of 2,600 materials. We see people use it before and after lab sessions,’ he said.

Beyond campus walls
Digital technology is not only helping the teaching on traditional ‘brick and mortar’ courses. There is a growing trend for another type of learning, the MOOC (massive open online course).
Matthias Ick, managing director of Digital Education, has been gaining some experience in this area since the company invested in Veduca, a MOOC provider in Brazil.

‘We got involved first of all to learn more about MOOCs,’ he said. ‘The fantastic thing about MOOCs is that you can relatively easily get access to high-quality instructors. One professor to 20 or 30 thousand students really is a great way to serve more people,’ he observed. ‘MOOCs attract a different audience than traditional university courses, often a slightly older age group, perhaps professionals interested in learning about a specific topic. Much is video-based rather than text-based.’

He added that Brazil is a particularly exciting market for this type of course. ‘Brazil is a growing economy but fewer than five per cent of the people speak English.’ This, he said, is a challenge both when it comes to trading internationally and for using education information. The MOOCs are taking English-language lectures and annotating them into Portuguese. There is also the possibility to use MOOCs to learn English. ‘There is an appetite for it,’ said Ick. ‘The workforce can advance their career quite quickly if they invest in education. Their salary can go up by 40 per cent just by learning to speak English.’

At the moment, he said, the MOOC market is complementary to traditional higher education. ‘Currently there is no business model for quality content with MOOCs. There is an opportunity but it needs to be packaged right,’ he added.

‘MOOCs provide new possibilities to extend education beyond the walls of an institution or school in a new and exciting way. Elsevier is proactively exploring how best to surface relevant content in this way. Many of our existing arrangements with partners such as edX, or the permissions and document delivery provider SIPX, are enabling this to occur in a simple, quick, and centralised way,’ commented Siebert of Elsevier.

Asked whether MOOCs are an opportunity or a threat for higher education and academic publishing, the responses were mixed.

‘MOOCs are most definitely an opportunity with many new innovative partners. Elsevier will continue to explore the potential in our initial partnerships in this area. For example, we are working with edX beyond Anant Agarwal’s initial course and are providing textbooks for five new edX courses. The textbook content is available free to view online, with discounts offered to those students enrolled in the MOOCs to purchase the print or full electronic version of the book, if they wish,’ said Siebert.

The Palgrave Macmillan Higher Education team noted that ‘MOOCs have the potential to massively expand the market for higher education globally. Having access to the world’s best teachers and their ideas can be an incredible experience. From our perspective, MOOCs are perhaps most useful for students trialling a subject area before making the commitment to pursue higher-level study.

‘MOOCs are no more a threat than other disruptive models and technologies. Distance learning has been around for a long time. MOOCs have proved that there is a huge market for higher education globally and that complex ideas can be spread effectively through online pedagogies. There’s still a need for high-quality academic publishing and resources that support learning and skills development, possibly a greater need. The key to MOOCs becoming a truly mainstream educational phenomenon is access to supporting academic texts and materials.’

Shoman of SAGE was also enthusiastic about the potential of MOOCs but she noted some potential limitations: ‘MOOCs are unlikely to replace university degrees but they could be a useful tool to replace textbooks. There are other issues, however. MOOCs are time-bound – they are around for perhaps eight weeks and then disappear – and so this is a challenge for faculty in recommending them to students.’

Meanwhile, Cox of Taylor & Francis, which is also experimenting with MOOCs, provided a more cautious response. ‘MOOCs are an interesting experiment, and we maintain close links with the major providers to better understand what role a publisher can play, if any. Whether they are an opportunity or a threat depends on whom you ask. If a student enrolled on a MOOC wanted to refer to reliable, curated, peer-reviewed content in order to maximise their chances of passing the course with a better grade then they could do worse than refer to published works.

‘But commercial entities like academic publishers trying to make significant amounts of money out of something which at its heart is all about democratised, free access to teaching and learning is something of a forlorn hope, in my opinion at least.’

Licensing content
The issue of publishers and authors making money out of content used in MOOCs and similar online courses is something that Tim Bowen, director of academic products & services at Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) has been thinking about.

‘Content providers have said to me that the MOOCs of tomorrow will be both free and paid for tuition. MOOCs had a free vision but then university administrators got involved,’ he said.
And with a move to a mix of free and paid-for content comes an increased demand for high-quality information resources. ‘Today it’s home-grown content and people are encouraged to use it for free. However, because it is moving towards paid for and credit bearing MOOCs, course providers are using more paid content.’

This brings challenges for both MOOC providers and publishers. Unlike traditional university courses with perhaps a hundred or so students, MOOCs can have tens of thousands of students, and drop-out rates of 90 per cent. With these kinds of figures the traditional sales approaches flounder.

‘The first question a publisher licensing agreement generally asks is how many students are on the course. If you say 50,000, the publisher is going to charge you $84,000. Publishing systems were designed for courses with up to about 50 or 100 students,’ explained Bowen.
In response to this, CCC has put together a partnership model and signed deals with several online content providers. The idea is that course providers license content through CCC then they get links to put into their MOOCs. Students then buy the materials directly and the MOOC provider doesn’t have to pay for materials and then try to reclaim money from students or try to second-guess how many will stick with a course.

‘This enables them to disseminate the costs of distribution to students,’ explained Bowen. ‘It’s on average a couple of bucks per article per student, not like pay-per-view pricing levels. Students can buy materials for all or just one part of a MOOC.

‘From a legal standpoint, using content for MOOCs is very much the same as for traditional classes. It’s the same types of content, just a much larger audience,’ he added. ‘We’ve had several referrals already but it’s not hundreds per month yet, though. I think we’re ahead of the game.’

Some publishers are already working on pilot projects with MOOC providers, where offerings would take a sort of freemium model, with students getting some materials for free as part of the course but if they want to study the topic further then they buy the book or related books.
Bowen said he applauds publishers for trialling such approaches but points out that the sheer numbers and range of MOOCs makes this a challenge. ‘They are going to have to make a lot of content available for free to make a difference. With the huge expansion of MOOCs, offering 50 books for free is not even a drop in a bucket,’ he said.

And, while MOOCs and traditional degree courses may attract different students, there are plenty of lessons to be learned. For example, MOOCs rely heavily on short videos and students are very used to using YouTube in their leisure time.

‘While the role of the physical library has changed over time, the modern librarian remains the core centre for many researchers and students on campus for their information needs. This could especially happen when MOOCs are used at an institution in the “class-flipping” scenario whereby even on-site students utilise their professor’s MOOC for the more lecture-oriented teaching, which maximises class time for personal interaction and workshops,’ observed Siebert of Elsevier.

Shoman of SAGE agreed: ‘Faculty are finding it harder to get students to read so are increasingly looking at video and seeing if this is a way in. It can often be easier for faculty to tell students to watch a video, take a quiz or listen to a podcast than to tell them to read a particular chapter.’

SAGE is looking to develop these ideas in its products, for example with its Speech Planner tool, which is interactive, online and includes examples of speeches. Shoman said that the company is also building a suite of pedagogical video products that will offer pedagogical tools for students and faculty, as part of their classroom experience, for assignments, or for use in ‘flipping’ the classroom.

‘Offline institutions will have to make better use of online resources to serve users better. Classroom time shouldn’t be just transferring facts. That could be served by digital,’ agreed Ick of Digital Education.

Meanwhile, other boundaries are blurring too. While MOOCs have not really been around long enough for the word ‘traditional’ to apply, the original vision of MOOCs is that they are free and open to all to register. However, there are spin off ideas, where there is a charge for services such as getting credits towards a degree or indeed a charge for the whole course, as well as courses run for invited participants, moving back towards the idea of more-established online courses.

And the use of MOOCs is interesting too. Although the idea might be for a basic level course it seems that many participants have degrees and postgraduate degrees and are using MOOCs to brush up on core skills and knowledge.

So there is a diverse picture. Students don’t necessarily want to use the same approaches to information as their fellow students. Technology makes it much simpler to differentiate between and respond to the needs of individual students. Online courses and resources provide a way for people to discretely fill in knowledge gaps. Print remains popular.
When the student of 20 years ago went to his campus bookstore he carried the same reading list as his fellow students – and, likely as not, fought for short-loan copies of the same library books as his classmates too. Today, as with medicine and many other things, the word ‘personalisation’ has crept in. Technology has begun to and will continue to enable students’ learning resources to be tailored for them.

‘Students needs are more diverse than ever, with high numbers of mature, part-time and international students. There is also a greater focus on personalised learning, utilising adaptive technology and flipped learning to allow students to progress at their own pace and to use their preferred learning style,’ noted the Palgrave Higher Education team.

Williams of MacMillan New Ventures observed: ‘Students are not interested in reading textbooks, or at least not in a linear way. They use them more like reference books. They are not all going through at the same pace or all looking at the same stuff. It’s about personalising learning to students in the same way that medicine is personalised to the genome.’

MacMillan New Ventures is sister to some well-known and long-established publishing brands but Williams is not afraid to challenge the whole structure of publishing and its role in education. ‘These are disruptive technologies. We didn’t acquire or develop things in order to maintain the status quo,’ he said.

Timo Hannay of another sister company agreed: ‘Publishers have to be more imaginative and move beyond lecture and textbook to use technology more. It seems to me that the job of publishers is to innovate. We are still just at the beginning of this.’

Putting on a MOOC

MOOCs were the topic of a breakout session at the UKSG conference. The University of Edinburgh was the first university in the UK to run MOOCs and Jo-Anne Murray, senior lecturer in MSc Equine Science at the UK’s University of Edinburgh spoke about her experiences of being an instructor on one of the first.

Her MOOC, on equine nutrition, was delivered through Coursera. It, and all the MOOCs, were designed to have very little tutor input and instead foster peer interaction.

‘We did it to raise awareness of our masters programme. Although it was billed as an undergraduate-level course, more than 40 per cent had a degree already,’ she said.
She described how the teaching was delivered through video, slides and quizzes, with teaching materials prepared by her and then teaching assistants looking through common questions via a live chat. Assessment was carried out with weekly and final quizzes.

Murrey’s MOOC was unusual in that of the 24,000 that signed up, 19,000 were active students and 5,600 remained active until the end; normally MOOC dropout rates are much higher than this. She attributes the higher completion rate than most MOOCs to the very specific subject area and the fact that people who signed up were generally horse owners.

Beyond promotion for the university’s courses, she says that delivering MOOCs brings other benefits. ‘I learnt some good lessons for other teaching, for example that people want short videos,’ she said. There were benefits beyond teaching too: ‘It was good for research because we then had 19,000 people with horses that we could survey on issues.’

Murray was joining in the session by Sally-Anne Betteridge, who works for the University of Birmingham, UK and who has signed up to and taken part in a significant number of MOOCs. She shared her personal experiences.

‘I’m not really interested in deep learning; I just want something interesting to watch on lunch break,’ she explained, adding that she tends to pick MOOCs by scrolling through the Coursera website to see what looks interesting.

She explained that she didn’t complete four of the MOOCs she has done for a range of reasons. ‘Sometimes it’s time or sometimes I’ve just not enjoyed them. That’s the beauty of MOOCs,’ she said. ‘Most of the courses had very open sources such as the BBC. Sometimes they had closed academic sources, with presumably some access agreed,’ she said. This did cause problems with some courses. For example she said that she did a MOOC from Canada where the resources were not available outside Canada.’

She also noted that the quality of the videos is mixed and that sometimes she opts to read the transcript instead. In addition, she said that she preferred to discuss things with other students on Twitter than to use online discussion forums.