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Open Educational Resources - barriers, condoms and cash

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I have just read this report (OER Research Hub evidence report) about the impact of OER and I found it a really interesting read for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the idea of openness in education appeals to me per se, it plays right into my two main beliefs about what a good (higher) education provision should do:

1. It should be accessible to as many people as possible

2. It should be built on sharing best practice

Secondly, because I felt that so much of the report could be applied to innovative practice in education in general, irrespective of their openness. For example, I am just in the final throes of writing a report about lecture capture use at King's College London. In it the data from students shows that they strongly believe the use of lecture capture improves their performance - staff do not feel any where near as strongly. And where the educators do see an effect , they often pick up on the complicated factors that may mediate the relationship. This is similar to the pattern found for OER where only 27.5% of educators believe that OER use results in better test scores for students in contrast to 31.9% of students believing this and educators identify a range of mediators. Why is this similarity important you might ask? Well I think it is important because OER has coverage, it has a research base and lots of practice within higher education is still lacking a solid evidence base so the fact there may be similarities could allow us to extrapolate findings from OER to other initiatives but it can also serve as a template to develop an evidence base for the other areas where it is lacking.

Other than this big picture on providing a research base for educational practice, the aim of reading this report was to identified key issues in OER so back to the business in hand:

Issue 1: Getting educators creating

The report showed that 67.5% of educators viewed open licensing as important and over 55% were familiar with creative commons and yet less than 13% (so less than a quarter of those with the licensing knowledge) had ever published anything in this way. Now of course you do not need every single teacher writing their own material and publishing - this somewhat goes against some of the tenets of open education (and certainly learning objects which impacted on the OER movement significantly) but this small percentage seems insufficient to sustain a high quality dynamic provision. I can completely understand why this is so low - later in the report there is comment on how OER does not seem to have related in policy change and certainly I can see having produced OER will do me no favours when it comes to managing my workload or getting promoted. For me the next big thing to investigate to address this issue is asking the question: What are the barriers to producing open education resources for educators and can these be removed? 

Issue 2: Getting parity in indicators

The report also identified the different indicators that educators and learners used in selecting their OER. I was pleasantly surprised to see that both cohorts felt a clear description of learning outcomes was important but I was less surprised to see quite different ratings for the provenance of the material - a reputable source was much more important to educators than learners. For anyone who has ever marked an essay citing wikipedia you may be able to see where I am going with this - we need to all be sharing the same ideas of what is acceptable and suitable - if not, neither educator or learners will be fully satisfied with the education provision. Arguably educators are best placed to guide learners in this but unless we articulate what we think a learner should consider - a set of standards if you like, how can we expect them to realise this is important in a world where nearly everyone can claim to be an expert on something. So this brings me to condoms. I don't remember much about sex education from school but I do remember the catchy statement 'If it is doesn't have a kite, don't fly it', referring of course to the kite-mark for the British Standards Institution. I am not sure how you would rubber stamp a set of OER (no pun intended) and certainly it would not be possible to use the same BSI tests for condoms (more thorough than you may think - watch the video). I also don't think you would necessarily want something across the board akin to amazon customer reviews but I do think educators encouraging use of OER for a specific programme of study or activity might provide a checklist of things to look out for, explaining why each is important. 

Issue 3: Sustainable financing

Something that has always worried me about OER is how they can be sustainable when produced on a mass scale like OpenLearn and MOOCs via FutureLearn. As someone who was based at the OU and worked on a number of module productions, we were put under a certain amount of pressure to create resources for OpenLearn alongside module production - this was not too hard because there was nearly always something that could be easily adapted and we were told it was a recruitment tool. But this report indicates it is not that great a tool. So longer term it may become unsustainable to keep producing OER unless there is another way to bring money in. One topical suggestion might be to sell off learner data facebook-style but, in all seriousness, I think this raises another issue for further research - what properties of OER are more likely to bridge into formal paid for learning and how can we ensure a proportion of OER provision does this to sustain the entire provision. 

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The Open University - Still Open?

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I read with interest the following two sources this week about Open Education:

Both described ideological underpinnings of the Open University. As someone who lectured at the OU for 6 years, has studied with them as an undergraduate (and is currently studying an MSc with them) and continues to tutor with them, I felt I had a good grasp of what made the OU open. To me it was open entry and accessible and certainly these are two features of the OU that were apparently at it's heart when it began, but there was more to it than this as shown in my simple presentation below:

I suppose in my mind when I talked about accessible I was really talking about equal opportunities and creating an education free from barriers, rather than supporting learning and interactive dialogue so I had the 2nd and 4th pillars in mind. Certainly, I had not given any thought to the third pillar in my image - I did not consider the OU to have transparency and sharing at its core.

Having reviewed these core values I started to think about whether the OU still holds this values and at what cost. I thought I would note down some of my views on this beginning with the ones that impact and inspire me the most:

Open Entry: For undergraduate programmes (other than those that are work-based where you must have a certain job), the OU is till completely open. It allows anyone and everyone to start studying and this creates a diverse and exciting student body. This is the defining feature of the OU to me - I can turn up to a tutorial and have all walks of life there and they all bring something to the table - they all inspire me to teach and learn. But this comes at a cost - at the moment a student with no background in an area can sign up and begin studying at final year level - the key is that the OU is open entry full stop not open entry and managed progression. This makes the lives of module teams developing programmes much harder as you cannot know when you write a final year module in molecular biology whether your students will have done a first or second year module in biology or even science in general. It also makes the lives of the tutors very hard - as is often the case with teaching 10% of students take 90% of your time and effort and at final year - this is a lot when a student has chosen to study neuroscience for the first time, despite only previously study music and literature, for example (it happens!). I think the difficulty in teaching in this context is a price worth paying - and certainly if you cannot teach - you cannot survive at the OU so a by product of this is that the teacher development is second to none.

Equal opportunities and free from barriers: When I started teaching at the OU, courses were pretty cheap and there were grants to help with things like computer costs and extra support for English and Maths skills. The climate of Higher Education has changed a lot in those 14 years and now there are definitely more financial and skills barriers as all OU study now requires a certain level of digital literacy. But those barriers are still far less than at most conventional universities and, the fact that over 25% of students at the OU have a declared disability - far higher than any other university - speaks volumes. I had the pleasure (I think) of teaching at the final few years of summer schools at the OU before the science faculty phased them out and I remember a student who arrived with a walking stick, but mid-week appearrf in the lab in a wheelchair. This presented no problem for the lab work as all this is carefully considered and planned but I remember saying to a colleague, its a good job he had the wheelchair with him and being astounded by the reply that he did not - we always brought a spare one to summer schools just in case. It is noteworthy that this summer school was held at a University around 100 miles from our base in Milton Keynes and we had transported delicate lab kit, computers, staff and a wheel chair - just in case. That example to me emphasizes the effort the university went to in order to remove barriers - and still does. I sometimes find myself so in awe of my students at the OU that I am reduced to tears thinking of their achievements (attending an OU graduation was worse than watching Marley and Me). Now, of course, they are the achievements of the students not the university, but without the unwavering support systems in place those achievements would be much harder to come by, even for the most brilliant of students.

Accessible and supported learning: I have perhaps veered into this in the discussion above so rather than focus on accessible I will comment on the support available to students at the OU. When I started as a tutor I was given a big yellow ring binder, which I still have (although the original contents is long gone). In big letters across the front it said 'Supported Open Learning'. I don't think I ever really comprehended what that meant but I did follow the guidance in it to support my students as best as I could. I knew the rules about extensions and where to point them to for general skills help and how to give extensive feedback. I also knew what staff development was available to me. In those days it was largely just the tutor and ~20 students - now we are part of a much bigger network with student registration and support teams. We have lost a little of the personal touch perhaps but I think the students still feel supported and I still feel like I develop a relationship with those I teach - I know because I still feel pride in them when they complete the courses!

Transparency, sharing and advising: Here I have saved the best and worst until last. In my mind the OU has been both far to modest but also shown too much of its hand. When the OU began, it was literally the only place in the world doing what it did and it was doing it brilliantly. So brilliantly that it was easier for the rest of the sector to see it as fundamentally different - so much so that other universities could get away with believing they could not learn from world-leading teachers and learning technologists delivering education to literally hundreds of thousands of students - a scale of education that could make the entire Russell Group  weep. The OU did not shout enough - it did not make itself known as experts and education leaders - it just kept going with its brand of open education, with subtle changes over the years and confronting sector issues like fee changes in its own individual way. And then came the change - at some point everyone wanted to have distance or online learning and who was there emerging from the background with all the expertise - willing to share and being transparent - the OU, of course. As online offerings now pop up daily from conventional universities, the future of the OU may be precarious - it is experiencing competition like never before. The skill set of staff is now valued more widely across the sector, meaning they have more options available to them, and the pull of other universities, using their traditional brand of excellence is drawing students away from the OU. All that said, I am not unduly worried for this ground-breaking institution just yet. Why you might ask? Well because as all the traditional universities develop the, the OU is not static - it too is developing and if that development is true to its roots there will always be a place for the OU in the UK (and global) HE sector. There is also an air of adolescence to the other universities. They develop some online learning or a blended programme and experience that over-confidence that comes with being a teenager, forgetting that sometimes there is still much to learn. I have a fridge magnet in my kitchen that says:

If at first you don't succeed, do it like your mother told you!

Those words ring true for the OU too, other universities are up-skilling in open and online learning but there is still the wisdom in the OU that comes with being the elders in this field and that wisdom, driving innovation can sustain the university with the right business model. The worst case scenario is that the OU does not develop and innovate at the right pace and there is no government bail out - what would that mean? It is almost unthinkable for someone like me who holds the OU so dear but if it is becomes a martyr to its own openness, there are worse ways to go and maybe, that is the circle of open education.

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Open education resources and open education - not two sides of the same coin

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In this blog, I have been asked to reflect on my experience of open education and as a University Lecturer at the Open University for six years, a tutor with the same university for 14 years and an OU graduate, I have often consider what it is meant to have an open education.

I think the easiest place to start is with standalone open educational resources, like Open Learn, various MOOCS and the Khan Academy. These resources are excellent and freely available to anyone with internet access and basic computing skills (so not completely accessible then but open). To me there are two main challenges in creating these materials. Firstly, there is need to create something in bite-size chunks for those who want to dip in and out whilst also allowing a coherent whole for the learner who wants a little more. That challenge is not insurmountable and many resources do it brilliantly - taking advantage of the Web 2.0 design features and the ability to link many different sections. The second challenge is a bigger one and that is perceived quality. In market research and related fields there is a test that can be done called the 'Willingness to pay' test. In this test participants are asked how much they would be willing to pay for a product. This test relies on the premise that how much you want something and its quality determines how much you will pay - a mindset common in today's society. This mindset creates a problem from open educational resources because if they are free there is a question of where is the catch? On the one hand people may be less committed to it (wanting it less) or perceive it as lesser quality because they do not have to pay. My experience of the OU is that 'lesser quality' is not something it has ever really had to worry about.

So now moving on the open educational resources to an Open Education per se. Again drawing on my OU experience - this must be the closest we have to an open educational offering in the UK at degree level with typical undergraduate courses having no formal entry requirements and any one being able to apply and join OU student body to study a qualification. To me, this is exactly what education should be but in reality there is something very un-open about even this offering. Firstly, it is not free - unsurprising in this day and age and, of course, well beyond the control of the university which worked hard to try to offer competitive fees in a very hostile financial environment - but the £5k + a year does not feel too open. Secondly, assuming fees can be paid either personally of with financial support, there is still the issue of accessibility versus open. Even where education is open it still requires internet access, digital literacy skills and a variety of study skills to get you through the qualification. This is, of course, true of brick universities as well, which are often decidedly less open, but they do have more face to face support available for these things so once there it is easier to support accessibility. 

I think the crux in both cases is that open does not equate to accessible and vice versa, and in my mind it is an accessible education that is most critical. Open could simply mean available (not necessarily completely free as we see with the OU) but accessible allows people to actually use it or gain from it in a meaningful way. None of this is to say that the OER or the OU are not excellent things - to offer something completely free and truly accessible is unsustainable in the current economic climate and perceptions of low quality would likely be an issue. I suspect that OER and the OU are in fact the best that we can have in this climate. Furthermore, accessibility can be supported - through tutors, support teams and MOOC guides but this is a constant process.

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Posting my phone and crossing picket lines

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Edited by Eleanor Dommett, Monday, 5 Mar 2018, 20:37

Three weeks ago I put my hand in my bag on the way to work - no phone. Mild panic set in but I managed to persuade myself I had just left it at home. I even created a picture in my mind of it on the dresser by the front door. For the entire day I felt like I was missing something. In the back of my mind I was thinking, what am I missing on my WhatsApp groups and what if I lose all my fitness logs (I have a goal to exercise every day for 2 years and I am dangerously close but I feel like if I do not have the log on my phone, it never happened). The only sense of relief came from my work because as I sat for much of the day at my desk I could see any emails or forum posts from students as normal so I knew I was not missing anything from them. When I got home that night my phone was nowhere to be seen so I got in the car and drove to the station - perhaps someone had handed it. They gave me a number to call - the irony was not lost on me. I have no phone, I pointed out, and so I cannot call. Anyway I drove home, becoming increasingly flustered and found an old phone and pay as you go SIM card. Eventually after various issues I had a functioning phone for calls and texts but no email or social media. I logged onto my tablet - just in case I was missing important work emails…in the two hours since I had left. By the time Monday morning had arrived I had an inbox rammed full  of messages and forum notifications that took me half the morning to clear - even though I had regularly logged on over the weekend. The amount appeared overwhelming. 

Eventually I decided to go and get a drink of water and I thought I would pass some marked exams to our programme admin team on the way. As I set the envelope down on the desk, I thought it looked a funny shape - I picked it up again and looked inside. It was like being reunited with a dear long lost relative - there was my phone with a pile of marked exams - the battery had died over the 72 hours we had been separated but it was still there - I was almost euphoric.

So you might be wondering what does this have to do with picket lines? Well one of my students asked me if I was intending to strike in the current round of action against the change to pensions and I said I did not have time to strike if I wanted to support my students. I also did not have time to work to contract because I simply have too much to do in any one day to get it all done unless I am working beyond my normal contracted hours. I am not alone in this both in terms of feeling conflict over striking and supporting student and feeling over-worked - it is the case for many academics and many in other sectors as well. One tool that allows me to keep on top of my workload is my mobile phone. I can reply to emails, forum posts, even edit the VLE using it whilst standing in the supermarket, which I regret to say I have done.

I think I should lay my cards on the table straight away; I think mobile learning is a brilliant thing. Whilst it was originally defined in terms of the mobility of the technology (Winters, 2006) it has now morphed into providing the opportunity to "overcome physical constraints by having access to people and digital learning resources, regardless of place and time" (Kukulska-Hulme, 2010). Adams Becker and colleagues (2017) identified a number of technologies in a horizon scanning report and mobile learning was one which had less than one year to go until adoption. Mobile learning aligns well to many institutional level goals including personalisation of learning, building digital literacies and widening participation to name a few (JISC, 2011). It also fits with the increasing demand for learning to be flexible - with high tuition fees students are increasingly working alongside their studies and needing to juggle their commitments more than in other generations. There are various pedagogic frameworks that can be used to develop mobile learning by some of the greatest minds in learning including Diana Laurillard (2002). There are clear examples of how it can be used effectively in key areas such as assessment and feedback from a range of FE and HE institutions across the world. I myself use it to get students involved in lectures and workshops with technologies such as PollEV, Padlet and Twitter, so what is the problem?

"It’s worth thinking hard about the implications of what you’re going to do in the longer term, rather than the short term – because this is technology that’s very much here to stay."

Tim Fernando, University of Oxford

To me the problem is that mobile learning is almost, by definition, without boundaries and herein lies the issue. It is becoming so engrained in our culture that as teachers we should respond immediately and students can engage whenever and wherever they like, that is difficult to set boundaries or to ensure they are respected, in either direction. We expect students to be able to self-regulate but don't explain to them how or why and what this might look like given their individual circumstance, and we, in our keenness to support students often set up and sustain learning dialogue when it is not essential. There are various papers discussing the benefits of feeling connected with other learners (e.g. Peterson et al 2008) including on wellbeing, but to date there is little investigation as to whether it is possible to feel over-connected and how this impacts on both students and staff. Fernando's quote above was not made with reference to wellbeing but surely as learning without traditional boundaries becomes more common we need to give this some consideration.


Adams Becker, S., Cummins, M., Davis, A., Freeman, A., Hall Giesinger, C., and Ananthanarayanan, V. (2017). NMC Horizon Report: 2017 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

Kukulska-Hulme, A. (2010) Mobile learning as a catalyst for change (Open Learning, Vol.25, No.3, November 2010, 181-185)

Laurillard, D. (2002). Rethinking University Education: A conversational framework for the effective use of learning technologies. RoutledgeFalmer, London.

Winters, N. (2006). What is mobile learning? In M. Sharples (Ed.), Big issues in mobile learning: Report of a workshop by the kaleidoscope network of excellence mobile learning initiative. University of Nottingham.

Petersen, S. A., Divitini, M., & Chabert, G. (2008). Identity, sense of community and connectedness in a community of mobile language learners. ReCALL : The Journal of EUROCALL, 20(3), 361-379. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0958344008000839 Retrieved from  https://search.proquest.com/docview/223262522?accountid=11862





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Lifelong learning in a second life

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I have just read the article by Seeley Brown and Adler (2008) about innovations in learning and I found the scientist in me interested to learn more about a project Harvard Law School implemented. They ran a course in Autumn 2006 on CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion. The thing that particularly interested me about it was the distinct ways in which learners could engage in the course, akin to the different conditions of an independent variable in a scientific experiment:

1. Law School students could enrol in the class and attend face to face i.e. in a traditional learning environment.

2. Other Harvard students (not studying law) could enrol in the class through the Harvard Extension School and could attend lectures, participate in discussions, and interact with lecturers within second life.

3. Anyone in Second Life could review any lectures or other materials for free.

Now as a scientist I would obviously like to be able to compare how the outcomes of the three groups of learners on the module but to make that meaningful they would need to matched on all manner of characteristics and this was clearly not what Harvard set out to do. Nonetheless I decided to do some further research to see what happened with this innovation. Google scholar threw up nothing of note and so I decided to see if anyone had published anything indexed in Academic Search Complete. I found just three publications, from 2006 to 2008. One was written by an academic involved in the project:

Harvard to Offer Law Course in 'Virtual World'

However, what I hoped would be an extensive article explaining the rationale for certain features and details of use appeared to be more of an advert for it.

As it appeared there was no published evaluation or summary of this I decided to look on the university pages instead and found their main intro page:


The latest entry I could find on this was 2008 which implies it is no longer running but a later item found online implies this may have switched to a facebook group and so the main blog from Harvard is no longer used.

In the years immediately after the course was launched they gained a lot of publicity with articles in newspapers such as the Guardian and more specialist publications such as the TES and Computer World, all of which discussed the innovation of this course.

It goes without saying that interest declines in something new over the years and over a decade has since passed so I would not necessarily expect to find more recent articles but it is disappointing that there was published material evaluating the course. The first two groups listed above were students enrolled at Harvard so presumably they could have been tracked and interviewed or even their attendance reviewed. Innovation is great and we should all strive to be innovative but I think to be truly innovative we must add to an evidence base in education and it seems this has not happened here.

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Looking back for the future of educational technologies

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Edited by Eleanor Dommett, Tuesday, 30 Jan 2018, 07:47

As part of my studying H800 I recently had the opportunity to look for a paper on the future of educational technology. I selected this one:

Sanders, M. & George, A. Educ Inf Technol (2017). doi:10.1007/s10639-017-9604-3

This paper appealed to the scientist in me because it looked back very systematically to see why technology had not met the promise it was thought to show, a belief supported by reports such as ECAR (2015). In doing so they produced a technology innovation cycle.

Here I consider each stage of the cycle and relate it to my own experiences (all universities shall remain nameless!)

1. Installation of expensive new ICT system. The authors suggest that this stage is influenced by hype from biased promoters and decisions by top-down naïve visionaries. I do have experience of this; a new system comes in with little consultation of those on the front line, often accompanied by unsubstantiated claims of success (or anecdotal claims of a problem this technology will solve). These claims, interestingly, often come other contexts and are rarely backed up by substantive evidence. I compare this situation to research. I would never change the set up of my lab just because a sales person said their kit was better than my existing equipment. Instead, I am likely to wait until I see solid research papers from labs doing similar work to me using the newer kit, or in the very least talk to other researchers who have the new kit and see what it is helping them do. Even then I would need to see it was significantly better (in terms of saving time or improved accuracy) before I would upgrade. I wonder why we don't apply the same rationale to educational technologies.

2. Trialling by enthusiastic early adopters. I thought quite carefully about this one because I think (and worry) that I am one of these enthusiastic early adopters! They suggest that a factor influencing this is poor teacher training. I do partially agree with this because I have endured numerous training sessions on various educational technologies and, on reflection, I can see that the focus is on process not meaning i.e. this is how you upload a video or set up a poll as opposed to why you might want to do these things. That said, this has not been a consistent experience and some training is very good. I am also a big fan of the champion idea as well because I think it is a way to get to those who would otherwise not engage at all.

3. Low uptake by other educators. This is all too often the experience we have but I think it is influenced by many practical things as well as just negative beliefs and attitudes towards the technology. For example, if you do not have time to rethink your modules or teaching significantly then any add-on technology will be less effective and having time is often an issue. There is also an all or none sense to this. If you will polling in one lecture, should not try it in all. I think unless things are considered best practice or policy, uptake will always be lower than ideal

4. Failure of technology to improve learning. They cite a number of factors influencing this including ineffective usage and the inappropriate nature of the technology. Both of which are likely to be important. I think there is a third important factor which is unreliable or invalid analysis of the effects of the technology. In addition, I suspect that technologies that are introduced institutionally are doomed to fail overall because the technology must be selected for the teaching and learning outcome so where these necessarily vary, results will be give a mixed picture at best.

5. Deterioration of an ageing ICT system. The authors suggest that a main factor driving this is the lack of initial financial planning. I do not have any direct experience of this but I am sure it does happen in some cases. I also think that another factor influencing this is outside/external promise. I am aware of situations where universities have held on to older technology on the promise of a newer version or upgrade that never appears.

6. Fading out the technology. Given the stages above, this seems inevitable and certainly I have experienced technologies being faded out, although more often they seem to be abruptly replaced!

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The future of the PLE

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Edited by Eleanor Dommett, Tuesday, 30 Jan 2018, 07:48

A little bit of background

Recently on H800 we have been learning about the PLE. This in itself has been quite a eye-opener for me because I had never really thought of myself a having a PLE. I have worked with VLEs for years as a student and a teacher and I felt comfortable with the concept and tools found in VLEs. One of the early activities of the week was to map out a representation of our PLE and here is a copy of mine:

Ellie' PLESeeing this map made me realise that I use far more tools than those provided by the VLE. Even if I look only at those used for study of H800 a reasonable proportion would still be listed. So now that I have found my PLE, what do I really think it means.

The PLE and the VLE

As I said right at the start of this posting, I had long been familiar with the VLE but not the PLE. I have now had the chance to reflect on the positions outline by some researchers in the field and whilst I can see points in favour of focusing on a PLE, I still believe the VLE must remain the mainstay of formal learning. Weller convincingly points out that many tools out there are more sophisticated than the VLE and in some cases, students will perceive the VLE as antiquated and clunky. He also states how many are using these tools anyway. However, I think that to minimise any risk to the student and university, an institution must be able to provide appropriate support for all the technologies it employs and this is just not viable for the broad range that could be encompassed in the PLE. I also think that there is an issue of supporting the users who are least technically able - this group perhaps will not have such a broad understanding and use of technology when they enter education and therefore will benefit from a crude but well support VLE. 

That said, I also think there is a perfectly reasonable middle ground here and it is dynamic platform. My own experiences of school leavers entering education is that they are quite limited in their technology skills - yes they can use google and facebook but not necessarily in any systematic and optimal way. In the transition year to higher education a VLE provided by institutions (in our case a platform based on moodle) can provide them with a concrete and all-encompassing resource. With seamless links from the university website to our moodle (which also links to specific places in the library) and office 365 they have access to most of what they need. As the student progresses we ensure they have more skills to select their own technology. For example, explaining the principles of databases and then giving a few examples before suggesting they explore and choose one for an assignment. Alternatively, we can set up RSS feeds into our VLE and teach them how to do the same, something they can then apply to their own choice of sites.

So in summary I see the VLE and PLE as things that can evolve together. You begin with a solid core VLE, safe, supported and restricted. From here the tools provided to the student by explicit teaching, and the experience they have the VLE, allows them to begin to rely more and more on their own chosen technologies, developing a robust PLE. I still seem some fuhndamental things the preserve of the VLE. Here are three key examples:

1. File Storage - the university must offer some way of storing files, this may be through something like OneDrive (ie outsourced but with responsibility) or it could be their own servers. This protects the students from loss of material, if they choose to use it. For many they will store assignment drafts elsewhere but this gives them a belt and braces approach and away for restoring lost work.

2. Assignment submission - this must be via the VLE. Whether the student chooses to submit a word file or image created in other software submission must be via the VLE. Assignments are stressful and issues with submission are sources of great worry even when the stakes are low for an individual piece of work so a university must be able to control and be accountable for this process to minimise damage to itself and its students.

3. Communication between staff and students - at my university we are only allowed to email students to their university account and not personal email addresses, the same is true in reverse. This is about protecting both staff and students and having an audit trail. It takes students a while to get used to this (it seems normal for staff) but it is beneficial in the end. It also helps people 'switch off' from work by not checking that particular email account. 

This final point leads me to something I would like to finish with. Mental health problems are now a key concern for all universities with mental health problems rising in student populations. Many of my students admit to working/studying for ridiculous hours. I have also experienced this. With an all pervasive PLE there is a risk things will be harder to switch off from. Keeping the VLE at the centre (however wide the circle) can help with important boundaries.  

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