Thursday, 29 May 2014

Learning design with NEC and the Open School in a Box Project


The mobile future is here and now
In the crowded train carriage this morning the man next to me was snoozing, one young woman across the aisle was deftly applying make-up in spite of the jerky ride, and another was reading a newspaper. All the other passengers were busy with various mobile devices: rapidly texting on a smart phone, reading an ebook, playing a game and watching a movie with earphones on a tablet, and working on a small laptop… the mobile future has arrived. Shame about the rickety train compartment!

The statistics bear this out – access to the internet using a mobile phone more than doubled between 2010 and 2013, from 24% to 53% (ONS, 2013, Internet access – households and individuals).  

So when we want information or entertainment we increasingly reach for our highly portable internet and cloud-based mobile devices. When we want to learn something, we will do the same, at least some of the time.

Adding technological to the traditional
I say ‘some of the time’ because mobile e-learning seems to be a new and additional way of learning that doesn’t replace (at least not yet and not for everyone and not all the time) more traditional ways of learning. People still like and trust books and printable resources (see for example The Times, 17 May 2014, ‘Hold the front page’, Culture section) and value personal contact with a tutor and other learners (see for example City and Guilds 2013, Learning Insights). Pen and paper remain an excellent tool for learning. The physical act of making notes can, for some learners, help to embed knowledge and understanding. Besides this, many exams continue to require students to work on paper: quick, legible handwriting is a key examination skill.

Courses need to be flexible to meet diverse needs and appeal to different styles and approaches to learning. We need to give learners materials in various forms – so that they can study online or on screen or via the printed word – and in different media, including video, audio, webinar and games. We need to enable learners to interact and engage through digital games and quizzes, as well as via contact with tutors and fellow learners.  

In short: we need blended learning.

The internet is a compelling resource for learning. But the internet also presents challenges in terms of access and the overwhelming amount of information we can access. Connectivity in many rural areas and even in the middle of a major city like London can be so poor that it is impossible to download or stream big files. Some people, such as prisoners and members of the armed forces on active service, have restricted or no access to the internet. Other people find the internet confusing, dangerous or chaotic, with hazards such as unwanted adverts, cyber-bullying and stalking, misleading or inaccurate information, as well as cyber crime. All of these aspects can effectively exclude some people from the digital world. How do learners judge the authority and veracity of what they find on the internet, and how do they manage to focus on the task with all the distractions available online?

Enter the Open School in a Box
The Open School in a Box (OSB) responds to these opportunities and challenges. The OSB can go places the internet can’t yet reach, and can reach people who are digitally disadvantaged – giving them access to carefully selected digital resources and learning opportunities.

It’s a mobile wifi hotspot, hosting a library of different media, including course and learning materials. It is robust and easy to use – you really do just plug it in. Anyone with a wifi-enabled device who is within range of the Box can access and use its resources and learning material. So you can download ebooks and pdfs, read webpages, complete interactive activities, stream movies and listen to podcasts in the same way as you would use the internet. Crucially, though, it sits apart from the internet and doesn’t give access to the internet.

I like to think of it as a local, small-scale controllable internet: it’s controllable because we can precisely determine what resources go onto the Box.
Learners may use the Box in a wide variety of ways.  They may be part of a group led by a tutor or facilitator, they may use course resources as the basis for group work or they may be studying on their own. They may have easy access to the Box, or only occasional access. They may bring their own mobile device, or one may be provided to them. Learners also have different styles and approaches to learning. For example, some will enjoy reading, exploring or thinking, others may prefer testing themselves, checking that they understand something and that they’re making progress. The learning design needs to be flexible, so that learners can work through the course in different ways to suit their circumstances and preferences.

The Open School in a Box Project – course development
For the Open School in a Box Project funded by the Nominet Trust, the National Extension College (NEC) development team are working to adapt two of NEC’s courses – IGCSE English Language and IGCSE Maths – to a digital environment on the Box.

The original print-based courses were carefully structured and designed with sound pedagogic principles to facilitate learning: an easily followed route through the course materials to achieve clear learning objectives; short manageable chunks of input; activities and self-assessment that encourage active participation; marked assignments that allow for personal tutor support and guidance.

We aim to retain these principles while also:

  • making the most of the way we use devices to negotiate and navigate digital information
  • using rich media – video, audio, visually rich text – by drawing on open educational resources  (OERs) where appropriate to enhance or extend learning
  • using digital quizzes, games and activities that give immediate feedback so that learners can see when they’re making progress.

Alpha trial
The main aim of the first or alpha trial for the OSB was to test the proposition that the Box can be easily accessed by a wide range of different devices, and by several devices at once.

For the trial the development team explored different ways of presenting the course material on the Box. We used Exe, which is an open source elearning authoring tool and experimented with interactive pdfs. It was a useful exercise as it highlighted some of the issues we would have in adapting existing printed course material for digital use:

  • How to efficiently convert existing courses into an editable format
  • How to provide an elearning experience that works well on different devices and is attractive, fun and engaging to use
  • How to source and integrate appropriate OERs
  • How to enable learners to use the course in different ways to suit their needs.

The next steps for the Beta trial
The next stage of development is to take what we’ve learned so far and prepare for the beta trial, which will test the course material in its various forms. There is a lot of work to do but key to our approach is the decision to adopt a more appropriate e-learning tool, from Adapt Learning. You can try out a demo of the framework here.

Adapt Learning
The Adapt Learning Framework is a new open source elearning authoring tool created by Kineo, City and Guilds, Learning Pool and Sponge UK. Crucially, for the OSB project, it works across a wide range of devices, adapting the layout of content to suit the type and size of screen. A page on screen is equally readable on a desktop computer and on a smart phone. The work to make websites mobile friendly is not a simple matter, but it is fast gathering pace, and Adapt Learning seems to be at the forefront.

The screenshot below gives an idea of what the IGCSE English Langage course page may look like on a laptop:


The Adapt Learning Framework is set to develop functionality quickly and become an easy-to-use authoring tool. We’re going to be using it at its early stages, so the NEC course development team will work closely with OSB’s technical team to use the framework for our courses on OSB. It’s a steep learning curve and we’ll see the results in the Beta trial in July.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Take the Learning Challenge 2014!

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Last year NEC celebrated its 50th anniversary by offering free courses to anyone who wanted to learn something new. There were 12 different courses covering a variety of subjects from accounting to childcare. We were overwhelmed at the response to our ‘50 hours for free’ campaign – around 2500 of you took part and we had more than 5000 downloads in all.

The fantastic response we got last year made us want to share our love for learning again with you this year, so we are delighted to announce the launch of the Learning Challenge for 2014!

We’re starting the challenge this week, during Learning at Work Week (LAW Week), and will be releasing 6 free courses each month throughout the summer. In the spirit of LAW Week, work-based learning and career progression, we have chosen Personal Development Planning as the first of our course topics. The course is now available on our website and will be particularly helpful for anyone who is working as–or aspiring to work as–a first line manager, helping you to:

  • identify the links between organisational objectives and personal
  • development objectives
  • prepare a personal development plan which meets agreed objectives
  • identify a range of learning and development opportunities to
  • support the achievement of the personal development plan
  • review the progress of the plan.

The Learning Challenge will run until the end of the Family Learning Festival and will cover a range of subjects, so remember to check back for new releases as the summer progresses.

You can keep up to date with all the latest activity at our website and on our social networking sites. We would love to know how you get on and will be watching the Twitter hashtag ‘#LearningChallenge2014’ for discussion, so join in and get involved!

We hope you enjoy taking up the challenge to learn something new this summer, whether you are a returning from last year or new to the experience. So go on – take the Learning Challenge and make this year the year you invest in your future and invest in yourself!

For more information about LAW Week, visit the official website. Unionlearn has also put together a list of free resources to help people get involved. You may also be interested in taking part in a survey run by Headway Recruitment to investigate people’s experiences and attitudes to learning at work. The survey is anonymous and provides a chance for anyone who is an employee to submit some valuable feedback about their experiences of training, either at work or through work, and how important that is for learning and career progression. Click here to fill out the survey.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Your questions answered: everything you wanted to know about IGCSEs

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What is an IGCSE and how does compare to a GCSE? Will an IGCSE prepare me for A levels? These are some of the questions we are asked on a regular basis by our learners, and in today’s blog, we‘ll try to answer them.

What does the ‘I’ stand for?

The ‘I’ in IGCSE stands for ‘international’. IGCSEs are qualifications equivalent to GCSEs, except that they will additionally be recognised outside of the UK. This makes them ideal for learners who may be studying from–or wishing to move–abroad. They are written from a more international perspective and their exams have been taken by students from over 120 countries all across the world.

It is also a common misconception that the ‘I’ in IGCSE stands for ‘interactive’, implying an online GCSE or ‘e-GCSE’ that can be studied electronically over the internet. While the IGCSE’s linear structure and emphasis on exams makes it especially suitable for distance learning, the qualification itself does not intend to place more emphasis on use of the internet or electronic devices over other forms of study.

How will IGCSEs be affected by the proposed government changes?

Simply, they won’t. The changes the government is proposing only affect GCSEs, and have no bearing on the international equivalent. The IGCSE also already happens to follow a structure which is quite similar to the proposed new GCSEs, with linear end-of-course exams and less coursework.

Why does NEC offer IGCSEs rather than GCSEs for most subjects?

In short, because the specifications are generally more suitable for distance learning. With a linear structure and a focus on exams, the distance learner is free to study flexibly at their own pace with only an exam to worry about at the end of it. GCSE-style coursework which may involve specialist equipment or laboratory access–something distance learners could find difficult or unaffordable to obtain–is less of an issue with the IGCSE, as it is largely absent altogether.

Are IGCSEs recognised in the UK?

Yes! Most universities and employers will recognise them as a direct equivalent to GCSEs and accept them in much the same way. The argument for more use of IGCSEs in schools within the UK is growing in popularity, and internationally the number of countries in which these qualifications are both offered and recognised is also increasing. All in all, the future looks bright for the IGCSE.

Will I be able to go on to A levels or other courses with an IGCSE?

Yes! As we mentioned earlier, most education or training providers will recognise IGCSEs as a direct equivalent to GCSEs, and many of our learners who studied their IGCSEs with us have gone on to do their A levels, successfully applied for university places, or got onto the childcare, midwifery or other essential course they needed to change careers.

If you have something or somewhere specific in mind and you are in any doubt as to whether an IGCSE will get you accepted, you can always give your future education or training provider a call and ask for clarification from them on how they see IGCSEs.

Are IGCSEs ‘better’ then GCSEs?

There isn’t really a direct answer to this question, as it largely depends. For the purposes of having a qualification on your CV it may not matter within the UK, though if you’re heading abroad an IGCSE will probably stand you in better stead. There are those who consider the IGCSE more similar to the old O level qualifications and thus believe them to be more rigorous, but equally the argument can be made that the more coursework-focused, modular GCSE makes for better preparation when it comes to introducing young learners taught in classrooms to the learning styles they will need if they go on to university, or once they move into the workplace (distance learners already gain their independent study skills simply by working through the course, due to the nature of the learning style). Both approaches can therefore be said to be necessary; it comes down to what is more suitable for the learner’s needs given their personal circumstances.

What qualification level is an IGCSE?

IGCSEs follow the same qualification levels as GCSEs. An IGCSE at Grade D to G is a Level 1 qualification, while an IGCSE at Grade A* to C is a Level 2 qualification.

A little something extra in honour of IGCSEs, GCSEs, literacy and numeracy

If you’re one of the many people looking for that essential Level 2 qualification of a Grade C or above in Maths or English, you’ll be pleased to know we have some good news: from now until 31st July we are offering 2 IGCSEs or GCSEs for £500 provided one of the two you choose is English or Maths! You can find out more by visiting our Special Offers page or getting in touch and speaking to our team, who will be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Where can I find out more about IGCSEs?

You can visit our website to browse our full range of flexible distance learning IGCSE and GCSE courses, or you can contact us and speak to our team. You can also find out more by visiting the awarding body websites (specifications and awarding bodies are listed in the detailed course information pages on our website).

I have a question that hasn’t been answered

We would love to hear from you! If you have any further questions send them in to us, or contact our team, and we will be happy to help. You can also reach us on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Top tips from our team: how to prepare in the run-up to exams

This week’s blog is written by NEC Course Coordinator Rosanna. Those of you who are studying with us and sitting exams this summer may already know her quite well, as she specialises in supporting our GCSE, IGCSE and A level learners.

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Rosanna, NEC Course Coordinator

With this summer’s exam session getting under way I would like to share with you some tips to help you to feel as prepared as possible. These tips are from NEC tutors and Student Support staff, including a special mention for Ralph who tutors for Chemistry and Physics and very kindly put together a pre-exam guide with some words of wisdom, so I hope you find them useful! If you have any questions please get in touch with us, and we would love to hear about the hints and tips that work for you.

The Final Countdown…

We would never recommend any last minute cramming, and the evening before each exam it can be much more productive to go for a walk, clear your head, have a nice long bath and get an early night. Do not try to learn anything new the night before – your brain needs a rest too!

However, in the few days before you can still be productive. Past papers are a great resource and free to download, along with mark schemes, from your online subject group. As well as giving you a feel for important themes and subjects, they’re also an indication of how the questions will be phrased and how much time you will have. Don’t rely on them too much though as awarding bodies do like to shake things up!

Try and compress each topic down to a single page of notes, then go for a walk or sit in the garden and pretend that you are giving a talk on one of your exam topics. It is a good, relaxing way of discovering holes in your knowledge and understanding, which you can address when you return home.

Not only does being active keep you healthy, but it can also help you concentrate. Whether it is taking the dog for a walk as a revision break, or listening to a recording of your revision notes while on the treadmill, engage your body and brain! Even when you are sitting at your desk going over your course materials, by writing notes or reading out loud you are engaging multiple senses which can really help information to sink in. Eating the right things helps with your concentration and energy levels too so keep the crisps and chocolates as a reward, drink plenty of water, eat fruit and avoid processed foods. And before each exam make sure you have healthy, filling meals that will help you to sleep the night before and concentrate during your exam. Plus, you want to avoid the dreaded rumbling stomach in the exam hall…

Exam Day...

Don’t panic! By now you have learnt everything and are prepared!

In the days leading up to your first exam read the information that your exam centre sent to you with your Statement of Entry. This will tell you things like your exam start time and how soon before you should arrive, where to go when you arrive, and what you can and can’t take into the exam room. As a distance learning student it is likely you will be sitting your exams somewhere you have never been before, so it can be really useful to do a ‘dry run’. Make the journey at the same time you will need to on the day, a few days or weeks before if you can. That way you’ll know how long it takes to get there and it will remove some of the worry on the day of your exam. Don’t be late! It is certainly better to be waiting around before the exam, than to be running to get there. Make sure you arrive in plenty of time so that you can find the exam centre, find your room, go to the toilet, and sit down and relax!

A piece of advice that lots of our tutors have offered seems so simple, but in the pressure of the exam room it can be easily overlooked: read the questions carefully, and more than once, to ensure you understand what you’re being asked to do. Look for ‘clues in the questions’ and be wary of the ‘sting in the tail’. Underline key words or important instructions that you do not want to overlook, such as giving your answer to a particular number of decimal places. Remember to always keep your answers relevant – link them back to the points in the question so there can be no doubt you have answered it well!

Don’t rush! If you have done practice papers you should have an understanding of how much time you have for each question, otherwise the amount of marks available can be a good indicator. Pace yourself and remember to leave enough time to check over your answers. If you’re really stuck, try moving on to the next question – you might find that when you come back to that tricky question afterwards, the answer will come to you.

And it’s as simple as that! Remember, if you have any questions as you prepare for your exams you can contact your tutor or get in touch with me. And we would love to hear how you do once you have received your results in August, so please keep in touch. In the meantime, relax and GOOD LUCK from everyone at NEC!

Thursday, 1 May 2014

NEC: Bill’s stepping stone from shop floor to doctorate

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Writing his autobiography from his home in Cyprus, retired academic Bill Haywood has been retracing his learning journey from ‘70s shop steward in the West Midlands to external student supervisor on the Open University’s technical change MSc. The book, entitled ‘On Life’s Little Twists and Turns’ and published by Random House imprint Partridge Books, pays tribute to the role of NEC and in particular his tutor Sam Rouse, in achieving far more in life than he expected when he left school.

During Bill’s school days, many men and women who in peace-time would have been teachers were away fighting the Second World War. Bill’s education was further hindered by having to spend two days a week attending hospital. It’s hardly surprising that, like many of his generation, Bill left school with no formal qualifications and went straight into an unskilled job with Phillips Cycles in Smethwick in the post-war years, when work was plentiful.

Sam guided Bill through the NEC social studies course the TUC signed him up for in 1972. Later on, Sam encouraged him to apply to Ruskin College, which provides educational opportunities for adults with few or no qualifications. Bill explains: ‘I was in my mid-thirties, working full-time for engineering company GKN. When I became a shop steward for the AUEW, I wanted to be as competent in that role as I could be. Returning to full-time education was out of the question, so I thought a correspondence course might be the answer.’

40 years on, Bill is quite sure that without Sam Rouse as his tutor at NEC he would not have had the courage to apply to Ruskin College. ‘Ruskin had given me a choice of six essay titles,’ he explains. He chose ‘Is civil disobedience ever permissible in a democratic society?’ Bill continues: ‘Sam didn’t say whether he thought it was or whether it wasn’t ever permissible. Instead, he helped me to understand that the response I gave was my choice and my choice alone, and sent me a list of six books to read to help me make up my mind. I wrote the essay in longhand, as you did in those days, and sent it off. A few weeks later I was interviewed at the College, and then offered a place on a thirty week a year, two-year course.’

At Ruskin College, Bill was awarded a diploma in Labour Studies in 1976. A BA in economics and an MSc in the history and social studies of science at Sussex University followed. In 1985, he completed his D Phil thesis on technical change and employment in the British printing industry, also at Sussex. His subsequent academic career, at the universities of Brighton and Sussex, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria, and at Manchester Business School, have taken him all over the world including to South America, the United States and to most of the capital cities of Europe.

When Bill became an external student supervisor at the Open University his own experiences as a part-time learner with NEC helped him to understand the challenges such students face. This was especially the case for students holding down a job and bringing up a family at the same time as studying part-time for a degree.

With his first book due back from the printers any day now, Bill is already planning his second. This time, he’s going to try his hand at a novel, in line with his belief that if you stop learning from the things you see around you, ‘you may as well pop your clogs’.

Bill concludes: ‘The NEC and Sam started me off on a journey I could never have contemplated without their input. Finishing the NEC course felt like stepping into soft snow at the top of a mountain; at Ruskin College, the slide became faster and faster. As for the University of Sussex and my three degrees, to me it felt like being in an avalanche that was carrying me I knew not where. It was a journey I could not possibly have expected. I visited places, and met exciting and interesting people, who it would never have occurred to me as a teenager and a young man that I would ever see, or know. Not bad for a working class Black Country boy who left school envisioning a life of factory drudgery, and not expecting to get much beyond the West Midlands!’

If you’ve been inspired by Bill’s story and want to find out more about NEC, visit our website to learn about our work and browse through our wide range of flexible distance learning courses. You might also be pleased to know the partnership with the TUC that gave Bill the opportunity to learn continues to this day through unionlearn; trade unionists are entitled to a 10% discount off the cost of our courses.

You can keep up to date with all the latest NEC news and events by subscribing to our email newsletter or following our blog, and you can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.