UOC Research Showcase 2017

On 31 May 2017, the UOC held its Research Showcase for 2017 at CosmoCaixa in Barcelona. The aims of the research showcase are to foster collaboration among the University’s researchers and educators and to improve the visibility of the University’s research and research projects.

21 research and innovation projects were selected to be showcased. These were grouped into three different streams:

  • Living and learning with technologies
  • Our society in a smart world
  • Research unboxed: Health, Culture, Tourism

I attended the living and learning with technologies session. Here is a short summary of my notes of each of the 7 presentations in this stream:

Emotions in Context: Estimating how People Feel

This research focuses on looking at how machines can process and understand visual images to be able to estimate emotional states. This can be applied in situations with empathetic machines such as personal robots, self-driving vehicles, gaming and medical areas). The research created an algorithm to analyse faces and estimate 6 basic emotions and 26 secondary emotions. The algorithm does not only look at the facial characteristics, but also looks at the circumstances or surroundings in the image to help estimate emotions. In order to train the system, crowdsourcing was used to build up a database of 18 000 images that people annotated with the emotions. This database has been used to train the machine to estimate emotions. (This presentation won the best presentation in our stream).

The Intelligent Industrial Internet

In an increasing digitised society, this research looks at industries (such as manufacturing) that use machines and components that were designed before the advent of the internet (e.g. in the 1960s or 1970s) that cannot take advantage of possibilities related to the Internet of Things. An open source component device was designed and developed that can fit onto components of existing machines to make them have an element of “smart deviceness”. The device can be solar-powered or even powered with a lemon “battery”.

The Use of Feedback to Improve Learning in Online Environments

In universities, lecturers often complain that students do not incorporate their comments or feedback to improve their writing, while students frequently complain that the feedback that they receive is too general or not helpful. How can these issues be resolved as lecturer feedback can play an important role in the development of the student? This research looks at the use of feedback as a support tool to improve student writing. Feedback can be considered as a circular process where the feedback is generated by the lecturer or even the student (with different characteristics), this feedback is processed (comprehended and used), and then the feedback is implemented (changes are made), which then gets sent for review again, starting the cycle again. The research has found that the type of feedback and when it is given matters. Feedback should promote discussion, it should consist of questions and suggestions that promote critical analysis and that the feedback should be provided during the writing process (and not at the end).

Returning to Studies After Taking a Break

This research looks to address the problem of dropout at UOC, which is a major concern. After the completion of the 1st semester at UOC, almost 30% of students take a semester break. Of those students that take a break in the 2nd semester, only 20% enrol in the 3rd semester again (although some do enrol at a later period). This research looks at being able to predict student dropout so that student dropout can be prevented. It takes a holistic approach to encourage student continuance. The research looked at the dimensions that affected dropout such as student issues (motivation, learning experience), external issues (work or family) and how these dimensions can be factored in to encourage students to continue.

The Use of Learning Analytics to Inform Decision Making in Higher Education

Similar to the previous presentation this presentation focused on the use of data to reduce student dropout. This research focused on the design and development of a teaching dashboard that helps lecturers make informed decisions to help monitor students and avoid dropout. The dashboard consists of different sections. One section checks updates are done at different times of the course (instructor emails sent out, calendars updated etc). Other sections of the dashboard focus on assessments (tracking of submissions of assignments, a plagiarism map that looks at similarities between the written assignments of students, and an overview of marks for different assignments), interactions (students connecting to the VLE, number of messages read and number of messages posted). It also has an abandonment tracking section where it looks for issues where students are no longer connecting to the VLE, or where students are still connecting to the VLE, but have not yet submitted their assignments.

Lifelong Learning Ecologies

This research looks at the context of learning changing as it becomes a lifelong and lifewide necessity. It focuses on the development of learning ecologies that incorporate physical and virtual aspects. A learning ecologies framework sees learning occuring across a dimension of formality (informal, non-formal and formal) and a dimension of space (Face2Face, Blended, Online). The research will focus on the identification of learning opportunities and improving learner self-awareness.

The Use of Short Novels to Spark Learning

This research looks at the use of novelettes to encourage learning, instead of the use of textbooks as learning materials. The aim is to take advantage of the power of stories to facilitate learning In a Criminology course, 2 short novels were used to facilitate learning about youth crime and immigration issues. The novelettes incorporated teaching aspects such as highlighted concepts that were linked to further descriptions. The novelettes were found to be able to transport students into the worlds described (sustaining their engagement and interest).



My Interview in the University Research Newsletter

UOC publishes a monthly Research and Innovation newsletter. For the December edition, a research staff member interviewed me about my doctoral journey so far at UOC. Here is the link to the interview: http://www.uoc.edu/portal/en/ri/difusio-publicacions/noticies/noticies-OSRT/2016/noticia_020_interview_Greig_Krull_PhD.html

Celebrating Teaching at Unisa

The 2016 Unisa and Teaching and Learning Festival, held 20-21st October, aimed to celebrate teaching and learning at Unisa. It was also an opportunity to hear from the nominees for the Unisa teaching awards. The theme of the festival was to celebrate the new generation student. I found this to be quite a strange theme, as Unisa has a diverse student body profile that incorporates a range of age groups. I’m also not sure that there is such a “thing” as a new-generation student. I suspect the context also has to do with the move from more traditional distance education towards making more use of online learning. The timing of the festival also had the very pressing issue of #FeesMustFall hanging over the proceedings.

The keynote speaker was Koffi Kouakou (from Wits University) who pointed out that teaching and learning go hand in hand, and that you can only be a good teacher if you learn well. He adapted an expression from EM Forster to say “How do I know what I learn until I learn what I teach”. He also emphasized the role of storytelling in teaching and encouraged teachers to develop the art of storytelling. Prof Rosemary Moeketsi spoke about the need for the decolonialisation and transformation of curricula. A frequent topic in the festival was how to better support students in the South African context and focus on what is relevant for students. Another keynote speaker, Prof Paul Prinsloo from Unisa, encouraged lecturers to make use of newer technologies such as learning analytics in a caring way to improve support to students in a way that does not add to teacher time. e.g. a tracking system that sends automated reminders (email or sms) when students do not submit an assignment.

Although the main part of the festival comprised short presentations from the nominees for the teaching awards from various colleges, teaching and learning support staff also presented on the support provided by their departments.

Here are some of the points that stood out for me from the nominees’ presentations:

  • Team approach to course design: In the Unisa approach, teaching is a collaborative process. Not only do lecturers sometimes work together to develop courses, they also get input from other stakeholders to improve the quality of the course. This includes members of their departments, industry representatives, course designers and others.
  • Incremental improvements: Many of the presentations highlighted small but meaningful changes that are made in their courses each year, rather than a completely innovative approach. Put together, a series of small incremental improvements can make a major difference to students.
  • Use of multimedia and OERs: Although not widely used yet, lecturers are experimenting more with the use of short podcasts, videos and animations that they develop themselves. They are also increasingly making use of existing open content out there to enhance their courses e.g. YouTube videos.
  • Use of instant messaging communication tools: Several lecturers have been using WhatsApp as a communication platform to engage with their students and go to “where the conversation is”. This also enables lecturers to stand back and let other students answer questions first etc.
  • Formative assessments: Many lecturers are encouraging students to use online self-assessments as part of the formative assessment process.
  • eTutors:  More and more courses at 1st and 2nd year level are making use of e-tutors to support the teaching process.

Congratulations to the award winners, the awarding of the teaching prizes closed the festival.

Seminar: Future of eLearning

UOC organised a face-to-face and online research seminar on The future of e-learning on 16 September 2016, presented by Dr Terry Anderson. These are my notes from the seminar:

Part A: Future of eLearning


  • There are many predictions of the future of elearning, but we wanted to look at the implications for future learning.
  • Definition: E-learning is a combination of methods, structures and networked electronic tools orchestrated into systems that bring about, or are intended to bring about, learning.
  • E-learning will be in ascendancy in the next decade.
  • For traditional universities moving into e-learning, most of the takers are current students, not distance students.
  • There is growth in investments in elearning.
  • Number of MOOCs have kept increasing, and more are being offered as self-paced.
  • eLearning is not only institutional, almost everything online is an opportunity for learning, either deliberately (Wikipedia, Youtube) or as a side-effect (email, Facebook).
  • Online, almost everyone can be a teacher and a learner.

Reviewing the Edinburgh Scenarios

The Edinburgh Scenarios (Bell & Stewart, 2004)

  • Virtually vanilla – move online, but institutions and pedagogies do not change. Examples: blended learning, LMS, recorded lectures, MOOCs.
  • Back to the future – rejection of elearning, and return to face-to-face. Examples: ban of mobile devices.
  • Web of confidence – expand and enhance opportunities for formal and informal learning. Examples: Wikipedia, Learning analytics
  • U Choose – move beyond schools and universities, focus on own learning. Examples: DIY learning, makerspaces, Youtube, open badges.

Part B: Generations of Distance Education Pedagogy

Three Generations of Distance Education

  • Cognitive-behaviourial (instructivist)
  • Social constructivist
  • Connectivist

The Fourth Generation of Distance Education

  • Learning analytics – traces of learning activity to help teachers and students
  • Collective technologies – the crowd e.g. social media
  • Artificial intelligence – mimic aspects of human learning
  • Disaggregated tools – move away from LMS to multiple tools
  • Mobility and device diversity
  • Internet of Things
  • Virtual and augmented reality – mobile apps
  • 3D printing

Elements and characteristics of the next generation

  • Focussed heavily on the individual learning
  • Distributed: technically, socially and organisationally
  • Crowd-driven and emergent
  • Integrated, just-in-time and authentic
  • Courses will play a less significant role
  • Learning will be divorced from accreditation

Threats from the Future

  • Open vs closed – open access, OERs
  • Loss of mind, the loss of soul – affected by technologies
  • Lack of adoption by formal education


  • Challenging times for open universities – focus on research on teaching and learning within disciplines, not disciplinary research
  • The future will be something like the past – low adoption rates by instructional education
  • Adjacent possibilities of new ideas and technologies always bring unanticipated and emergent opportunities and challenges
  • However, institutions may provide the stability necessary for human scale adaptation to technology induced hyper-change

Seminar: A critical review of online learning theories and research methods

UOC organised a research seminar on Theories for learning with emerging technologies on 15 September 2016, presented by Dr Terry Anderson. These are my notes from the seminar:

Part A: Theories to Guide Online Research

Need for theories: necessary for scholarship, extend past learning, project to future research and practice

Traditional theories of educational technology

  • Presentational view – present content using quality presentation – xMOOCs, YouTube, Khan Academy
  • Performance-tutoring – present contest but also test and reinforce – cognitive behavioural theories, instructional systems design
  • Epistemic-Engagement view – social learning – social constructivism, peer learning
    • Online Social Constructivism – active engagement, net presence (building trust), multiple perspectives and sustained dialogue, scaffolding, authentic tasks (relevance), problems are ill-structured and open-ended.
    • Challenges of social constructivism: group-based, pace and time limited, teacher-controlled?, little room for introverted, individual learners.

Distance Education Theories

  • Transactional Distance Theory (Moore) – structure and dialogue and learner autonomy
  • Theory of Instructional Dialogue (Caspi & Gorski)
  • Community of Inquiry (Garrison et al) – Social presence, teaching presence, cognititve presence

Business and Organisational Theories

  • Systems theory – components of distance education, beyond teaching and learning
  • Complexity theory – parts of systems affect each other, emergence and unanticipated events, importance of context

Newer Theories

  • Heutagogy (Hase & Kenyon)– self determined learning
  • Connectivism (Downes & Siemens) – knowledge distributed across a network of connections.
    • Connectivist learning requires network effects, persistence and accessibility (extends beyond the course)
    • Challenges – requires net literacy, openness can be scary, new roles for students and teachers, can be manic.
    • Social aggregation makes a difference – individuals  (behaviourism, cognitivism) > groups  (social constructivism) > networks/sets (share an interest, but not necessarily a social connection) (connectivism)

Part B: Paradigms & Online Learning Research

Research Paradigm

  • Philosophical/theoretical framework of a discipline or common set of beliefs about how problems can be understood and addressed, a worldview
  • Informs questions, literature and methodology
  • Paradigm: Ontology + Epistemology + Methodology
    • Ontology: view of reality and what exists e.g. realist, critical realist, relativist
    • Epistemology: our relationship with the knowledge we are discovering/uncovering – knowledge governed by laws of nature (objective) or interpreted by individuals (subjective)
    • Methodology: how you go about finding knowledge (quantitative, qualitative)
  • Types: Positivism, Constructivist, Critical, Pragmatist

Research Paradigms – Positivist

  • Ontogoloy: There is an objective reality, we can understand it through the laws by which it is governed
  • Epistemology: Scientific discourse derived from positivism and realism
  • Method: Experimental, deduction, randomised control trials, only measures what you can with scientific accuracy, based on hypotheses
  • Research questions: what? How much? Relationship between? Causes?
  • Evaluation: validity and reliability
  • Examples: Community of Inquiry content analysis, Meta-analysis


Research Paradigms – Constructivist / Interpretivist

  • Ontogoloy: World and knowledge created by social and contextual understanding
  • Epistemology: Understand a unique person’s view
  • Method: Qualitative (narratives, interviews, observations, ethnography, case study)
  • Research questions: why? Lived experience? Meaning have?
  • Most common type of DE research but more difficult with distance between researchers and participipants
  • Evaluation: Credibility, transferability, dependability, engagement
  • Example: participants views of delivering online courses

Research Paradigms – Critical / Postmodern

  • Ontogoloy:  Society rife with inadequacies and injustice
  • Epistemology:  Uncover injustice and empower citizens
  • Method:  Ideological review, civil actions
  • Research questions:  who has power? Vested interest? Who is excluded? How can I change this?

Research Paradigms – Pragmatism

  • Ontogoloy:  Truth is what is useful
  • Epistemology:  Best method is one that solves problems
  • Method:  Design-based research, mixed methods
  • Research questions: will this intervention improve learning?
  • Features: intervention, natural context, iterative, development of theory

Supporting Online Doctoral Students

Following on from my previous post about Doctoral Identities in Networked Learning, this post continues with my reflections after a workshop with Dr Marguerite Koole from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. It focuses on student readiness for online doctoral students and supporting students already in the doctoral programme. Another area of interest, not discussed in this post, is the support for students once they have completed the degree.

Readiness for Online Doctoral Studies

Dr Koole has created a self-assessment survey (shared under a Creative Commons license) to help students check if they are prepared for doing an online PhD. Below are some of the key issues to consider for students:

  • Academic Preparation
    • Qualification alignment with the departmental doctoral degree requirements
    • Similarity of doctoral field to masters field
    • Alignment of research paradigm with the dominant epistemological and/or ontological positions of the department
    • Knowledge and experience of faculty members in your area of research
    • Awareness of completion statistics in the department
    • Opportunities for teaching or being involved in research projects within the department
    • Flexible structure of the doctoral programme
    • Availability of orientation sessions for new doctoral students
  • Personal Preparation
    • Availability of friends or family to openly discuss  your doctoral studies
    • Impact of any health issues or family responsibilities
    • Impact of any major life events e.g. lifestyle or work
    • Awareness of your reasons for doing a doctorate
  • Professional Preparation
    • Support of your employer or possibility of career changes
    • Connection of research interests with workplace responsibilities
    • Availability of co-workers who have gone through doctoral studies
    • Future job prospects in your area of research after completing the degree
  • Financial Preparation
    • Savings specifically made for studies and a contingency fund for emergencies
    • Preparation of a budget (tuition, books, conferences, loss of wages, cost of living) and tracking of financial activities
    • Possible reduction in working hours and income
    • Sources of funding (internal and external to the university)
    • Financial support responsibilities e.g. family
  • Technological preparation
    • Access to a computer and internet access
    • Comfort in using basic tools (Word, browser, email, Skype) and other software e.g. research analysis software

Support for Online Doctoral Studies

In the workshop, we worked in groups to come up with a support system for online doctoral students. Here are some of the elements our group discussed:

  • Cohort Support
    • An online community to share relevant information (upcoming conferences, workshops, relevant journals) and a forum for Q&A. This could be as simple as a WhatsApp group or as detailed as dedicated community space.
  • Supervisor Support
    • A supervisory contract to share expectations and e.g. timetables for meetings.
  • Mentor Support
    • This could be an academic or a recently qualified PhD holder to provide emotional support and counselling services.
  • Department Support
    • A list of “How tos” to share important information e.g. how to submit a proposal, obtain ethical approval, follow grievance processes, apply for funding.
  • Technological Support
    • Training or information on how to use various research tools e.g. SPSS
  • Research / Academic Support
    • Training or information on academic writing, publishing, time management, proofreading, peer review, reference management, designing questionnaires etc.
  • Network / Dissemination Support
    • Financial resources for attending conferences and summer schools.

Doctoral Students’ Identity Positioning in Networked Learning

On the 19th of September I attended a presentation by Dr Marguerite Koole, from the University of Saskatchewan, Canada.  The focus of the presentation was her research around identities for online doctoral students. These are my notes from the presentation.

Doctoral Degrees

  • Doctoral degrees are more intense and longer than other degrees and require working at a conceptual level. It involves considering the nature of knowledge and contributing original knowledge.
  • It changes the identity of the student.
  • The significance of a doctoral degree is source of new knowledge, practices and technologies. The awarding of doctoral degrees is also linked to the prestige of a university.
  • There are different types: traditional with individual supervision, PhD by publication, a taught doctorate, professional doctorate.
  • Interaction can take place face-to-face, via telephone, email or virtual conference.

Online Doctoral Degrees

  • Offer flexibility for the needs of practitioners and professionals
  • Encourage cohort interaction to reduce isolation and increase support
  • Challenges for online learners are lower completion rates than face-to-face learning and not being able to observe academic conduct norms
  • Some students are not prepared for online doctoral studies and face challenges related to finances, job stability, family commitments and lack of support.

Doctoral Completion Rates

  • Such statistics are difficult to measure, but some examples over 10 years: Canada 34-71%, Australia 30%-70%, England 48% (part-time), 76% (full-time)
  • Challenges are high non-completions and inability for graduates to secure academic work.

Research Study

  • Goal: to explore how online doctoral students in experience challenges to their current identities, norms, and relationships across the various boundaries of their academic and non-academic worlds.
  • Research question: ‘How do doctoral learners in programs describe identity positioning?’
  • Participants: 20 doctoral students in 2 online PhD programmes in Canada.
  • Method: Semi-structured interviews and noting themes, patterns etc.
  • Theoretical framework: Social positioning (Harré, 2010)
    • Conventionalization: Credentials, publications, social and ethical behaviours
    • Appropriation: appropriated concepts, attitudes and behaviours
    • Transformation: perceived status, value of contributions
    • Publication: expression and enactment: writing, publications, public speaking


  • Positioning within general society
    • Increased sense of understanding of society, greater appreciation of others in society, different cultures and societal issues, reinforced value of teaching and serving society.
    • Questioning reasons for study, the personal and society benefitsNarrow focus of PhD not of interest to most people
  • Positioning amongst friends and family
    • Management and examination of multiple priorities, not enough time for relationships, emotional cost from being away from family and friends
    • Sharing information about studies with families and friends – trying to simplify and open communication
    • Reactions from family and friends ranged from disinterest, criticism, lack of understanding to excitement, support and acceptance
  • Positioning within the professional context
    • Trying to synthesise academic and workplace knowledge
    • Leading to promotions and increased status (having a voice in decisions, people listen more). More likely to get full-time teaching positions.
    • Introducing new ideas and practices and examining old work practices
  • Positioning within the doctoral cohort
    • Mixture of competition and collaboration
    • Provided collegiality and supportiveness (sharing successes and failures), providing academic and emotional support
    • Helps to feel if you are on track or not
  • Positioning within the academic department
    • Better understood expectations of academic behaviour and standards of performance
    • Huge leap moving from Masters to PhD
    • Sense of belonging and closer relationships with professors
    • Questioning of ontology and epistemology
  • Positioning within academia
    • More critical of statistics without evidence, better at reading academic articles
    • Understanding of publishing and the value thereof, growing as a writer
    • Exposure to experts from across the world

Implications: Support for online distance students

  • Students can actively shape their support structures: locate a mentor, foster relationships with other students, learn to describe their research in non-threatening and meaningful ways to friends and family and consider the timing of the doctoral journey.
  • Universities can provide orientation sessions (how to manage support structures, finances, health, schedules, etc.), clarify standards of performance and expectations of behaviour (provide writing samples, analytical work, etc.) and encourage conference participation and publication.

For more information about Dr Koole’s research look at: Koole, M., & Stack, S. (2016). Doctoral students’ identity positioning in networked learning environments. Distance Education, 37(1), 41–59.