Thursday, 24 July 2014

Nicky Morgan: a new era in education?

Nicky Morgan, UK Education Secretary
Photo credit: Pearson Teaching Awards via Photo Pin [cc]

Since last week’s cabinet reshuffle, education news has been dominated by the arrival of a new Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan. Replacing Michael Gove, who was best known for his disagreements with teachers and for some controversial changes, Ms Morgan enters the education arena with a lot on her plate.

The world of education is feeling the pressure, with changes to the  A level and GCSE curriculum not least among them. Without implementing even more large-scale changes, what can be done to improve the educational environment within the UK?

Whatever happens next, we want to make an appeal to the new Education Secretary: Please don’t forget the non-traditional learners. As one of the longest standing providers of flexible and distance learning, we feel that it’s our duty to give a voice to the tens of thousands of learners who are studying independently.

There are many different types of non-traditional student, but broadly speaking they will be an adult or young person whose circumstances make it difficult to access conventional education. They could be a young person with an illness that prevents them from attending school, a serving member of the armed forces, a single mother working to support a family or an offender looking to improve their chances of finding employment on release from prison.

The common factors among them are that they are willing to take their own initiative to succeed, but without support they may not reach their full potential. Their drive and determination should be celebrated, and we believe the government should bend over backwards to help people wanting to improve opportunities for themselves and those around them.

Over the last 51 years NEC has helped almost a million people change their lives and improve their prospects through education (some of their inspiring stories can be read here), but even with the help of organisations like NEC the road to success is not easy. For example, it can sometimes be difficult–and costly–for a private candidate to access exams:

  • students sometimes have to contact up to 30 different schools to find one able to help. We understand that there are often sound administrative reasons for not being able to help, but driving theory test candidates do not have to jump through these hoops
  • even if an exam centre is willing to support a private candidate for written papers, it is even more difficult to access provision for oral exams and science practical exams
  • arrangements for students with special needs can be problematic. In an Opinion piece written by Ros Morpeth for the Times Education Supplement earlier this year on the needs of students not learning in schools or colleges, the example of teenager Tim Pople was given, an NEC student who is studying for AS levels in maths, history and biology and who as a result of suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome (ME), is studying part-time from home
  • exam centres add their own costs to the fees private candidates pay to exam boards. Some centres charge a modest fee but others impose high charges, at a level which they are able to determine themselves. In addition the student will have to pay travel or accommodation costs which may be necessary if the exam centre is at a distance from the where the student lives.

NEC has partnerships with several schools across the UK who act as an exam centre for our students as private candidates, but they are not convenient locations for everyone. We would like to see government, possibly through Ofqual, working with the exam boards in the following ways:

  • requiring them to collect and publicly report data on the number of private candidates sitting examinations. There is currently no published data on private candidates available
  • asking them to work with schools and colleges on making reasonable arrangements for private candidates to sit examinations on their premises so that, giving a positive response to approaches from private candidates becomes the norm rather than the exception
  • encouraging them to work with schools and colleges so that they understand that the results of private candidates sitting papers at exam centres run by them have no impact on the performance of individual schools and colleges as private candidates’ results are not included in the figures used to compile league tables
  • encouraging them to consider establishing open exam centres which could be used as a safety net for students who are unable to find a local centre.

With such a short space of time to impress between now and the next General Election, improving access to exams for private candidates is one way Nicky Morgan could make her mark.

Friday, 18 July 2014

OERs and the Open School in a Box project

Above: Logo of the OER conference in Berlin (September 2013) by Grafik: Markus Büsges, leomaria (Wikimedia Deutschland e.V.) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Using Open Educational Resources to engage learners

One of the aims of the Open School in a Box project funded through the Nominet Trust is to explore how Open Educational Resources (OERs) can be used alongside structured NEC course materials. The aim is to provide interesting and fulfilling learner journeys through digital IGCSE English Language and Maths Foundation courses available through a wifi hotspot on any enable handheld device.

In this blog, Sally Dawson from the Open School in a Box development team explores how OERs are being used.

What is an OER?

OER stands for Open Education Resources, and they are what they suggest, openly available, educational resources, usually digital and often multi-modal in nature.

They can include e-books, readings, videos and quizzes – virtually anything that can be created in a digital format, and then shared with others. They have been a significant development in the last ten years or so, and have transformed teaching and learning by providing the education community with shareable content that can often be repurposed, promoting collaboration and sharing. OERs can be as much as a whole course, or as little as one image, but share the same characteristics of low or no cost to the developer.

MOOCs as OERs… and the future

Most people will have heard of MOOCs by now – Massive Open Online Courses, a huge worldwide initiative building open courses which are freely available to all, usually with no charge to the learner, but equally no routine accreditation when completed. Critics say the huge numbers that drop out show that they don’t really work, however it’s worth noting the sensible observation that: “The more open the system, not necessarily in terms of entry-level qualifications, the more likely a high program-level dropout rate.” (Powell, 2009).

Here’s an example of a MOOC:
Copyright and licences

So far so good, but resources are rarely provided without some kind of attached licence. Many of you will have seen Creative Commons licence attribution underneath a video, or with a picture on Flickr.  Many individuals and groups allow content to be re-used (but possibly not repurposed) under these licenses, which offer the creator a variety of choices in controlling use of their work – often all the creator wants is to be credited.

Some of this content of course would be useful for Open School in a Box so that’s what we have been researching.

Downloading and embedding content

However, most users of OERs do not need to download them as we need to do for the Open School in a Box, and many creators aren’t happy with this idea. Embedding is quite a different thing, of course. Take YouTube, for example. Click on most videos and expand the section underneath which says ‘more’ and most will say they have the standard YouTube Licence’. This means, while you can embed the video on your own site, you must not download it without the owner’s permission. Largely, the reason why there’s not a problem with embedding a resource (as opposed to downloading it) on your own course, webpage or blog, is because the author’s right and ability to remove or amend it whenever they wish remains.

Specific OSB issues

It’s been a steep learning curve for us creating Open School in a Box content using OERs. The material can’t be embedded in the Box content because it isn’t ‘on’ the internet – the Open School in a Box is a mobile hotspot that has on it what has been pre-loaded, a local connection accessible by those within range.

Considering this, we still have so many requirements. Firstly, we are looking at low or no cost so that all available resources are channelled into the important business of creating course content. Secondly the material must be absolutely relevant to the specific level and part of the course we are creating, ensuring it is meaningful within a course context, and if possible we need to be able to contextualise it. Lastly, it must look good and be legible (or audible) on a variety of handheld devices which we anticipate learners using.

All pedagogical principles apply – nothing must be used unless it has a sound reason to be there, and enhances that specific part of the course.

Contextualising resources

Let’s take an example. Some excellent videos do encourage and allow downloading, but we still need to take great care that those we use are appropriate as they are, if we are not able to adapt them. If they are American, the terminology might be different (which might be a barrier for some less confident learners), and also each video we use needs to fit pretty exactly with the part of the course and syllabus to which we’ve linked it (if you recall, Maths and English IGCSE at present). If it doesn’t do that, then it really can’t help the learner. Some do exactly meet our requirements as they stand, but not all.

We have a number of audio clips and e-books sourced from literature in the public domain (i.e. probably no longer in copyright) which can in general be used freely.  A famous example of these is those that can be found at Project Gutenberg, a great example of a very large OER which we have added on the Open School in a Box. The Box also holds a school approved version of Wikipedia, of approximately 20,000 pages. (Every page has been reviewed by a teacher and approved for use). Finally we have a copy of Khan Academy lite, a set of more than 2,000 videos that have a main focus on mathematics taking learners from 1+1 through to higher maths.


So what other options do we have?

We need to do a lot of searching! Sometimes we ask for and record permission if we can contact the author, where their wishes are not clear. We can also make our own resources and videos – there are plenty of tools out there such as Prezi (a good alternative to PowerPoint) and Screen-Cast-O’Matic, to name just two, which will allow us to create our own animated resources.

The Open School in a Box project allows us so many opportunities to reach new learners who for a variety of reasons aren’t able to access the internet, so we need to ensure that we meet their needs in the best possible way we can. We are seeing the issues described above as exciting challenges, and are learning and sharing as we go. Watch this space!

Make sure you follow NEC on social networks because we’ll post updates and other information here. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter, where we’ll be using the hashtag #outsidethebox.

For more information about NEC’s work or to view our full range of flexible distance learning courses, visit our website or get in touch.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

South Yorkshire’s flexible learning community: bringing Co-operative values to life

Above: Pupils at Sir Thomas Wharton Community College

NEC’s GCSE and A level courses are helping a comprehensive school in South Yorkshire establish itself as one of only two exam centres for private candidates in Doncaster, as well as expanding the curriculum for pupils.

Less than a week after GCSE and A level candidates at Sir Thomas Wharton Community College in South Yorkshire finished writing their exam papers, the school had its first enquiries for 2015 from private candidates wanting to sit maths and science papers. An NEC exam centre for only two years, the school is increasingly attracting private GCSE and A level candidates – those who are studying under their own steam without attending classes at a school or college – from as far away as Leeds and Sheffield. There were 15 of them this year.

Sir Thomas Wharton Community College is a 1,140-pupil comprehensive school in the small town of Edlington on the outskirts of Doncaster. It is a member of the Yorkshire and the Humber Co-operative Learning Partnership. The principle of flexibility for both pupils and the wider community led Sir Thomas Wharton Community College to consider distance learning and the National Extension College in 2008. Flexibility for the local community was behind the decision made four years later to become an exam centre for private candidates, reflecting the community-based values of the Co-operative movement.

Deputy headteacher Kevin Grum explains: ‘If an organisation’s values mean anything, you have to do something about it. Here, members of the school council – pupils aged between 11 and 19 - interview all job applicants. The pastoral curriculum, including assemblies and tutorial time, looks explicitly at our values. Ultimately, they are all about flexibility. So when our head of science agreed to take on practical assessments for private candidates studying GCSEs, for example, he did it because of the school’s values.’

Exams officer Jo Shalome says: ‘We work on a “never say no” basis when it comes to private candidates. We know that finding an exam centre isn’t easy, and we want to help people improve their qualifications in any way we can, whether they are full-time students at the school, families who are home-schooling their children or adults who want a second chance at learning. We would only turn a private candidate away if the request came just a few days before the exam date or if the subject the candidate was studying wasn’t one for which we could offer a controlled assessment.’

But it’s not just private candidates who are studying NEC courses and taking their exams at Sir Thomas Wharton Community College. The school is offering NEC courses to sixth form students as a way of offering them greater subject choice than the school would be able to offer otherwise, and to make individual timetables more flexible.

The school’s first NEC success was a student who took an AS in geography. She went on to take the A2 with the NEC in 2013, achieving a B in the exam, and is now studying nursing. ‘She wanted to focus on sciences but geography was the subject she was most passionate about,’ says Kay Henson, Head of Achievement. ‘We couldn’t find a way of fitting geography into the school timetable with biology and chemistry, so distance learning was an obvious way to go.’ Other students coming into the sixth form have followed in her footsteps and the school is now seeing them choose specialist subjects that NEC offers but which are not mainstream for schools. This year, accounting and environmental sciences have been popular.

The school’s pastoral support system works hand-in-hand with 1:1 tutoring from NEC. Every sixth-form student taking an NEC course has a 50-minute tutorial each week which includes support from a teacher who is a specialist in the curriculum area they are studying. Accountancy students, for example, are matched with a business studies teacher. Together, they look at the progress the student has made during the past week and the teacher helps them with anything they are struggling with. As some students are understandably resistant to making contact with people they do not know personally, the sixth form team also monitors whether students are having tutorials with NEC tutors and takes action if it finds they are not.

Now the school is planning to introduce flexibility in subject choice to Key Stage 4 (GCSE-level) pupils through NEC. As well as choosing a foreign language, a science and a humanities subject to fulfil the requirements of the EBacc performance measure, students also study the school’s specialism, business and enterprise studies, and choose a fifth subject. The school is considering whether NEC might offer a more efficient way to cover staff absences than employing a supply teacher in cases where the absence of permanent member of staff is known about in advance, for example maternity and paternity leave or major surgery.

Deputy Kevin Grum concludes: ‘When Sir Thomas Wharton Community College first became an academy, we were in a partnership with others schools in Doncaster. That meant we could offer students a wider subject choice at both GCSE and A level than we had been able to do before. Now we are a standalone academy. Distance learning is more important than ever in offering the flexible provision which is so central to what we stand for.’

To learn more about NEC, the work we do, and how we might help you, visit our website.You can keep up to date with all our latest news and events by subscribing to our email newsletter or following our blog, and we can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Tutors transform lives

P B Taylor. Council candidate photo - small.jpg

Last month, adult learners in England and Wales celebrated their learning achievements, seeing for themselves the impact learning has on communities and taking part in hundreds of events to mark the UK’s largest festival of adult learning.

NIACE, the organisation behind Adult Learners’ Week, has got together this year with the Institute for Learning and awarding organisation NOCN to celebrate the skills, expertise and dedication of teachers, trainers and tutors across the lifelong learning sector. For NEC’s learners, tutors make all the difference – the difference between superficial understanding and deep knowledge, between giving up and carrying on, between self-doubt and proud confidence.

An exceptional distance teaching tutor needs to build up good 1:1 relationships with learners without ever meeting them in person. Many learners who choose to study at a distance lack self-confidence and have not had positive experiences in the school system. Others may be isolated because of illness or being in an institution such as a prison.

Phillip Taylor, NEC’s lead tutor for law at GCSE and A level and with a distinguished career as a Barrister at Law, is just one of many exceptional NEC tutors.  He has worked with us for over 20 years and understands from personal experience the challenges faced by people who return to learning once their years of compulsory education are behind them, as this short film made by the University of London shows:

The student support team at NEC values Phillip and knows that he has a passion for his subject, always going above and beyond to help a student. This can mean photocopying articles and posting them to learners, telephone calls, motivational emails and careful feedback on their work. Phillip has made a difference to many learners’ lives, having tutored more than 1,000 students so far.

The words of three of the NEC students Phillip has taught over the years give an insight into why he is so highly regarded. Sophie Garthwaite says: ‘I consider myself lucky to have studied law with Phillip. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of legal matters and his quick and insightful responses to my work were always encouraging and positive. He has inspired me to develop a keen interest in law.’

Elliot Stevens, who took his A levels last year, is one of a growing number of students who has made use of NEC’s courses while being home-educated. Now in his first year of studying for a degree in law at Robinson College, University of Cambridge he says: ‘Phillip is a brilliant tutor who pays close attention to the individual needs of his student and passes on his genuine interest in and enthusiasm for his subject.’

It takes courage and determination for people who had a difficult time at school to return to learning. For them, the relationship with the tutor is particularly important. Cathal Charker says: ‘Phillip Taylor gave me the confidence to succeed where the education system did not. He was tirelessly supportive and encouraging, sending me articles and advice regularly. I am truly grateful for what he did to help me and on top of that I got a great result – all thanks to Phillip.’

To all NEC tutors, our thanks on behalf of learners for your work in transforming their lives.

If you want to find out more about NEC, our dedicated team and the work we do, or to browse our full range of flexible distance learning courses, visit our website. You can keep up to date with all the latest NEC news and events by subscribing to our email newsletter or following our blog. You can also find us on Twitter and Facebook.