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Intervening: problems with values in finance

A few days ago, I attended a conference on the work of French sociologist Pierre Bordieu and its relevance for accounting. There were many things to take away but one of them was the fact that, in later life, Bordieu increasingly became an activist as well as an academic. In his 2003 work Firing Back: Against the Tyranny of the Market 2, he famously wrote:

“Those who have the good fortune to be able to devote their lives to the study of the social world cannot stand aside, neutral and indifferent, from the struggles in which the future of the world is at stake.”

He was specifically referring to sociologists, but I think the same is true of business educators and, most relevant to me, finance educators. Following the financial crisis, a writer in The Economist observed the following:

“Most of the people at the heart of the crisis— from Dick Fuld at Lehman Brothers to John Thain at Merrill Lynch to Andy Hornby at HBOS—had MBAs after their name . . . In recent years about 40% of the graduates of America’s best business schools ended up on Wall Street, where they assiduously applied the techniques that they had spent a small fortune learning. You cannot both claim that your mission is “to educate leaders who make a difference in the world”. . . and then wash your hands of your alumni when the difference they make is malign.” (Economist, September 24, 2009: on-line edition, quoted in Crossan et al, 2013)

Of course, business schools have always included at least some materials on ethics, and are even starting to consider character, as Crossan and her colleagues set out in their paper, but I do not think this goes far enough. There is a bigger issue that has bugged me more and more in my many years as a finance educator and I would express it like this:

The general assumption seems to be that finance is a technocratic, value-neutral discipline. It is taught the same way all over the world to people of widely different cultures and outlooks. Ethics in finance largely consist of reporting things correctly (sic), ensuring that controls are effective, rules are complied with and that managers discharge their responsibilities to their shareholders or stakeholders.

It does not take very much effort to deconstruct and undermine this view. Jacques Derrida argued that symbols (which include words and numbers) never have a fixed, neutral meaning. Meaning of symbols is always “deferred” into other symbols. In other words, meaning of any sort depends on a complex web of context. Financial numbers mean nothing in isolation, they can only be interpreted in a context, and that context will include values. It follows on from this that, like Bourdieu, Derrida insisted on an activist dimension to his project – “Deconstruction, I have insisted, is not neutral. It intervenes” (Positions).

To take one concrete example, the law in the UK requires directors to act in the best interests of shareholders, which is assumed to be maximising financial return. This is also the assumption behind corporate governance codes and the starting point for most financial analysis techniques. This point is further reinforced by the structure of an income statement, which culminates in the profit or loss attributable to shareholders, inherently conveying the idea that the only really important number is the return to providers of equity capital, as pointed out by Sikka (2015) and others.

It is clear that there is a value system hard-wired into the way we do finance and, to my mind, the best ever summary of that system was set out by the fictional financier Gordon Gekko in his famous speech from the 1987 film Wall Street. If by some chance you have never seen this speech, I highly recommend viewing it. It is an extraordinary piece of film:

Of course, it is obvious to us now that Gekko was spectacularly wrong in his prescription for the USA, and many of us would recoil from his description, but who can deny that his approach is the morality at work in our boardrooms and trading desks? If you have an hour available at some point, a contrary view can be found in this absorbing documentary where the entrepreneur Peter Jones interviews Mark & Mo Constantine, the owners of Lush, along with Chris Dawson, owner of discount store The Range.

Lush is a rare example of a business run to maximise social good rather just profit, although along the way the Constantines have created a spectacularly successful business too. They can do this because the business is privately owned – the reason Mark Constantine declares he would never sell the business is because a publicly-owned company could not operate like this. If he sold the company, it would be absorbed by the dominant paradigm and its values would not last long.

So if we are not happy with Mr Gekko’s approach, are there some alternative approaches which can inform our finance education and practice? I think there are, and will aim to explore these in my next blog post.

Crossan, M., Mazutis, D., Seijts, G. & Gandz, J., “Developing Leadership Character in Business Programs”, Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2013, 12 (2), 285–305.
Sikka, P. (2015) “The hand of accounting and accountancy firms in deepening income and wealth inequalities and the economic crisis: Some evidence”, Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 30, 46–62.

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Reflections on the DigiKnow conference: digital awareness, online presence and going political

Earlier today, I was privileged to be a keynote speaker at a student conference organised by the University of Gloucester called “DigiKnow”. I kicked it off with a presentation on digital literacy and capability, for which the slides are attached. Using a metaphor from the Matrix, with gratitude to Tara Brabazon, from whom I got the idea, I wanted to encourage attendees to “take the red pill” and be thoughtful about their use of technology, instead of simply taking what they are given. There were a number of interesting questions, one of which picked up on my mentioning how much I learn from my teenage children. I was asked whether I was concerned about children having too much technology, and the short answer is no because technology is simply part of life. In my view, they need help from their parents to learn about responsible and safe use of technology, rather than having it banned altogether. Having said that, this is a personal matter and I know other parents take a different view. It intrigued me that this issue came up again in the Q&A session at the end of the day. There is a lot of anxiety among parents and society at large about children using technology and perhaps there is a need for better support and guidance here. It certainly needs to be more nuanced than “don’t use social media”, which is too often the message and does not get us anywhere.
I attended several interesting sessions including a brief review of copyright issues, which are something of a minefield and difficult to cover in a short talk. One point I was not aware of is that educational institutions often hold licences for use of specific material, but only for study purposes. This means that a student who posts their assignment on a blog, for example, needs to check whether they breach copyright on any external material they have used. At lunchtime there was a professional photographer taking photos for students to use on their LinkedIn profiles. This seems like an excellent idea as the quality of the photo is critical for a good profile, and having a professional involved makes a big difference. We then heard from marketing consultant Luan Wise, who provided useful tips on using LinkedIn. This had me mentally resolving to update my profile, in particular my “headline”. This defaults to your job title and place of work which is not always that informative, and I have never changed this. I will shortly!
We then heard from Mark Gosland from Gloucestershire Police Force about online security and safety. I consider myself pretty good on security but Mark has outdone me. Not only does he have two-factor authentication for key accounts (which I also do), he does this using a cheap phone which he doesn’t use for anything else. In other words, to hack my gmail account you would need to guess my password (which is generated by Lastpass, so pretty much unguessable) then steal my phone (and guess the password to that). For Mark, even if they stole his phone this wouldn’t work. I’m impressed. The final presentation was from librarian Johanna Anderson on “Your digital tattoo”. The word “tattoo” is chosen deliberately rather than the more usual “footprint”, because a footprint fades but a tattoo remains forever, just like your online material. This was timely advice for students who will be seeking employment shortly. Employers will often find out what they can about you online, it’s wise to manage this information. On the plus side, a positive online presence can have all sorts of benefits, as it has for Johanna, who was even offered a book deal on the basis of her blog.
Finally, there was a group Q&A, which pulled a number of themes from the day together. I was impressed at the questions that showed a lot of reflection on the big issues raised. One student simply asked “Do you think it is still possible to have a private life?” This is a big question. At times, I feel relieved that I grew up in an era when you could make mistakes in your teenage years and they would generally be forgotten. Now that so much growing up happens online, it will not be forgotten, an issue which I try to help my kids navigate. Mark Gosland gave his personal opinion that we have “sleepwalked” into a situation where we are under constant surveillance and our privacy is being eroded, but as citizens and voters we have the ability to ask questions and change this. I strongly agreed and ended up talking about the fact that I have recently joined the Open Rights Group, which campaigns on these issues, and advised anyone who is conceDigiKnow keynote presentation 200116 – Daniel Clarkrned to seek more information from them. This is what can happen – when you take the red pill sometimes you feel compelled to try and change things. We covered a lot of ground today, from practical ways to use social media to large-scale changes to society, and lots of points in between. Definitely a day well spent.

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New beginnings, the fragility of finance and postmodernism

As 2015 draws to a close, I am more than usually excited about the coming  year. This is because, after nine years with BPP, I am moving on to a new and very different job. It is never easy to move when you have spent that long with an employer, and anyone who has read previous blog posts will know that they have been absorbing years where I have learned a lot, and developed a strong interest in technology and its implications for education. I am proud of many things achieved at BPP, and there are many colleagues whom I will miss greatly.
However, an opportunity has arisen that seems almost too good to be true. We moved to Shrewsbury four and a half years ago because we fell in love with the town. At that time, my job was to write material for accounting courses, and do some teaching and project work. I could mostly work from home and teach in Birmingham. Then an innovative project brought me into BPP Business School and the world of higher education, continued homeworking and more travel. Also, although I did not know it at the time, plans were being drawn up for Shrewsbury to get its own university, initially a campus of Chester University. Skipping a few stages to get to the present, last summer I was offered a job as Senior Lecturer in Accounting & Finance at the University Centre Shrewsbury. The first undergraduates started in September and I will start work there in mid-January.
This is a different venture at many levels, and one of the exciting aspects of working at a brand new and growing institution is that things are sure to change quite fast. It is also a condition of my appointment that I gain a doctorate, so I will be enrolling on this next September (about 25 years after I first contemplated a doctorate, as it happens – these things come around eventually). After so many years in finance, management and education I have many ideas about what to study. I am also a firm believer in open scholarship, so in that spirit I will share my current thoughts on the research here with anyone who is interested.
At BPP I led the development of a programme called the MSc Financial Leadership, which is for qualified accountants and explicitly based on the idea of social constructionism. This is the perspective that much of our world does not have objective existence but is created by societies through language, law and custom. For example, a company does not physically “exist” and can only act through its agents. Other “legal fictions” include marriage, government and, importantly for accountants, money. Money only has value because the law says it does and we all believe it. The MSc programme is aimed at raising awareness in accountants that virtually everything they deal with in their work does not have objective “existence” – it is socially created, therefore historically conditioned and subject to change.
Where this idea gets really interesting is in the industry where, one way or another, I spent much of my practitioner career – banking. Because banking takes social constructs and legal fictions to a whole new level. We often like to think of our bank balance a bit like the scene in Harry Potter novels where he goes to Gringotts Bank and can see the vault with his treasure in it. Somewhere, we feel, there is a little pile of money on the bank’s vaults with our name on it. This is nonsense, of course. All we have is an entry in the bank’s ledger to say that they owe us money, and a belief that, if we need the money, they will pay it to us. But if any more than a small fraction of depositors want their money back at any one time, then the game is up, the bank will fold and our balances will be exposed as fictional. This is a lesson we all saw played out with Northern Rock in 2007.
When explaining this to students, I like to say it is literally a confidence trick. It all works fine as long as we believe in it. But if we stop believing, it is finished. The whole financial system is held together by pure belief. That is why the Northern Rock crisis was resolved by the government underwriting them. We all believe the government, at least for the time being.
If this doesn’t scare you, at least a little bit, you aren’t paying attention.
There is something very postmodern about this situation, as John Lanchester and others have pointed out. Our bank balances are symbols which refer only to other symbols, and are ultimately guaranteed by another symbol, but one that is potent enough that we all trust it. This situation is not discussed very much because it is too scary and all those with a vested interest in the situation (which is in fact most of us) do not want there to be too much questioning and doubt. Even most of those who work in banking are unaware of its insubstantial structure and accept assurances about how “sound” and “solid” the institutions are.
We could leave it there, but I suspect that at some point we will realise how insubstantial the financial system is and it will collapse, causing a lot of pain in the process. Is there another way forward? I have come across a couple of prescriptions, including a shift to electronic currencies and replacing banking with a range of specialist services, and these probably have their part to play, but as an educator my instinct is to look at the way finance professionals and bankers are trained and developed. Do they realise how insubstantial the system is and its implications? I think not – accountants are trained in a body of knowledge that is dated and treated with excessive reverence. Bankers are generally trained less than accountants and any training they do get tends to have a narrow, technical focus. Navigating and changing a fragile, postmodern system requires a breed of professionals who can take critical thinking and reflection to a new level. So what would their education look like?
At present, this is where I would like to take my doctorate. In the spirit of open scholarship, I would love anyone who is interested to add their comments or contact me direct and let me know what you think.

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Can we avoid wasting talent?

A couple of months ago, I attended the HR Directors Business Summit in Birmingham. I was representing my employer, BPP, and gave a presentation setting out the philosophy underlying our part-time programmes. While there, I had the opportunity to attend some of the keynotes and workshops. As is usual at these events, they were mixed in quality but two in particular have stuck in my head ever since. Although very different in style, they dealt with a very similar theme.

One was from Rasmus Ankerson, who was by some distance the most polished and engaging speaker we saw. Mr Ankerson is now a writer, consultant and entrepreneur, but has a background in sports coaching. He described his experience as a young football coach in a small team that struggled to attract talent. In desperation, they recruited a no-hope teenager called Simon Kjaer. Not one of the experienced coaches at the club thought he would have a future in the sport. Kjaer now plays international football for Denmark and the club’s top player at the time, tipped for success, runs a pizza restaurant.

This is not an isolated example. Many organisations face the “Simon Kjaer problem”, as he put it – how do you identify your talent given that it is far from obvious. This relates to a brilliant graphic that has been reproduced countless times and apparently originates from comedian Demetri Martin:

What success looks like

The truth of this has graphic been borne out by research (including Mr Ankerson’s) – most successful people either do not have a career plan or do not stick to it. They have their ups and downs, changes and dead ends. Blind luck and serendipity play a role greater than is often acknowledged. And yet this is rarely acknowledged or acted upon – schools, coaches and employers persist in seeing successful careers as a smooth ascent, whereby somebody performing well at one level is ready to move on the next one. The converse is also found – at a previous employer of mine, the bottom 10% of performers at any one time were at risk of being “let go”. These approaches take no account of the non-linear nature of successful careers and in the process lose a lot of talent. For some ideas on better ways to identify real talent, Mr Ankerson’s website is a good place to start (hint: you need to take into account someone’s prior opportunities in assessing their performance and attitude is critical).

The other talk, which was very different in style, gave a very similar message. A team from SHL Talent Measurement presented their research which showed poor returns on high-potential programmes run by companies. The key problem is that managers assume their high performing staff are also high potential when, according to SHL’s research, only 15% of them actually are. SHL have their own model of how to identify high potential, which includes things like taking risks, assuming responsibility and being interested in your own development, which can be more important than the standard to which you are currently performing.

The overall point is very clear. We all tend to be dazzled by someone’s achievements and assume that someone who has already achieved will go on to achieve even more. Conversely, someone who is underperforming can be written off. But this is lazy and can lead to bad decisions. It may well be that a high performer has already peaked, or that an underperformer will do well in a different context or with the right support. The world needs to use its talent better and we badly need more sophisticated approaches for identifying and nurturing it. I commend both Mr Ankerson and the team from SHL for putting some forward.

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Update on a group task

My day job for the last year has been working on the creation, launch and development of a new degree programme and (we believe) a new approach to education. It has been a complex task, involving a globally dispersed team (with all the issues of synchronicity, language and culture that brings), significant ambiguity and frequent adjustments. It has been hard work, and has involved many conference calls and periodic gatherings in different parts of the world. However, we have launched and are now working on the next iteration, so things are moving forward.

As a student, I am currently part of a team faced with a design task that is much smaller, but I think almost as complex. We have some written instructions, but little briefing or context. We are using some technology tools unfamiliar to many of us. Our schedules make any synchronous interaction (let alone a meeting in person) impossible, and we are all trying to fit this in around full-time jobs, family and other commitments. Any one of these would constitute a challenge and having all of them together means, I think, having the odds largely stacked against you.

Remarkably enough, we have made some progress on our task and managed to collaborate, which I think means we are doing very well – and I have to acknowledge the Herculean efforts of our team leader here in keeping us moving forward. I have managed to get my head around the website, contribute some of the analysis and in some cases get us started on the next phase of the project. We have been asked to reflect on what we have learned from the process so far, and I would highlight the following:

  • It reinforces the value to me of all those meetings and conference calls, time-consuming though they are. They serve to build rapport within the team, gain a common understanding of the tasks and issues, resolve problems and plan next steps. These things can probably be done asynchronously online, but they take much, much longer, and I am still not sure they will ever be done as effectively.
  • We have experienced some issues with complexity and reliability of our technology tools. At times, I have recalled a scene in the (excellent) film The Social Network. Mark Zuckerberg is calling his business partner Eduardo Saverin, who has cut off funding, meaning that the fledgling Facebook may go offline. “You don’t understand”, shouts an exasperated Zuckerberg, “it can’t go down, not for a second!” I don’t know if it a true scene or not but for me it encapsulates much of Facebook’s genius. Facebook seem to me to understand some principles that so many technology companies don’t – most people do not have lots of time to learn how to use new software and it needs to be 100% reliable (99% is not good enough). Facebook is intuitive to use and reliable, which are key reasons why it is so successful. Some of the tools we have been using are not, and this has caused disproportionate problems, in particular having to spend limited time and focus on technology issues rather than the task in hand.
  • Sometimes you need to adjust your metrics. This was a point often made in our previous section in relation to MOOCS, where completion is an often-used but probably inappropriate measure. For this project, I and others are trying to hold ourselves to a standard of producing something we would be happy with in our work. I don’t think that is feasible given our constraints. We just need to produce something that is interesting and sparks ideas. The concept of “good enough” is important.


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Personalised learning – constraints and what educators can do about them

We live in an era of “mass customisation”, where everything from cars to sandwiches can be tailored exactly to our preferences. And some have argued that similar customisation is happening in the world of education, bringing in a new era of personalised learning.

In her provocative book “DIY U”, American journalist Anya Kamenetz (2010) presents an extreme version of this view, arguing that the enterprising learner can create their own, bespoke learning experience without the crippling cost of formal university education. A number of forces are driving this, including the greater availability of information and easier communication, and other developments mostly in technology. Others have argued more moderately that learning is becoming much more personalised (see for example Wheeler, 2009, who argues that the Personal Learning Environment or PLE will eventually supplant the VLE.)

Is this vision of personalised learning correct? Are there any key constraints on it?

On the surface, the evidence is consistent that students are increasingly using a wide range of tools to tailor their learning to their own personal preferences and approach (see for example the summary by Conole, 2011). This continues a long-term trend. In pre-Gutenberg Europe, someone who wanted to learn would need to somehow gain access to the universities and church bodies who controlled the handful of instructors and manuscripts that were available.

The printing press opened up learning to a wider audience, but it remained largely in control of the elite. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the hero of Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure is a stonemason with his heart set on a life of study. He reads as much as he can and moves to Christminster (Oxford) to be physically closer to the learning there. However, his application to study is brusquely rejected by the Master of “Biblioll” College:

“SIR, — I have read your letter with interest; and, judging from your description of yourself as a working-man, I venture to think that you will have a much better chance of success in life by remaining in your own sphere and sticking to your trade than by adopting any other course. That, therefore, is what I advise you to do” (Hardy, 1895)

Nowadays, Hardy would need another way to make the story end tragically. If Jude was not able to attend physical university for some reason, he could study online, or just make use of free resources and join discussion groups interested in the classics. In that sense it is more possible than ever for learners to control and personalise their own learning.

Key constraints

However, a number of constraints on fully personalised learning can be identified. Firstly, for those enrolled in formal education, personalised learning will be constrained by the need to succeed in exams, which leads to a reluctance on the part of students and institutions to take risks. Despite their drawbacks, standardised exams will probably remain the most feasible method of assessing large numbers of students at the same time, so this constraint is likely to be in place for some time yet.

This is presumably one of the reasons why, as highlighted by one recent British study (Furlong & Davies, 2012), ownership of learning is much greater when it happens outside a formal educational setting:

“What is different at home though is that the young people themselves are in charge of their own strategies for learning; they can therefore draw on a wider range of different resources—digital, social and in terms of time—than is often possible at school or college.”

A second key constraint on personalised learning is analysed in the same study – possessing the right skills. The authors observed four different types of skills the students needed if they were to take control of learning in this way – technical skills (across different technologies), development of judgement (evaluating information), networking skills and collaborative skills. Interestingly, the authors make links between the last point and online gaming, a link that has been made before  (McGonigal, 2011). These skills need to be in place for learners to take ownership of their learning, but the encouraging aspect of the report is that the schoolchildren studied were, to some extent, demonstrating them.

A third and final constraint on complete ownership of learning is that learners will often need support in managing their learning. This is often provided by a learning institution through a VLE. Sclater (2008) has set out the ways in which VLEs can be particularly helpful to students:

  • Publicly available systems are often not interoperable
  • They can group learners together in appropriate groups to help communication
  • They protect students against material that is unsuitable, pornographic, defamatory, illegal etc.
  • They can ensure accessibility to as wide a group of students as possible
  • “Free” systems require support, which is often costly
  • It can be confusing to use multiple systems with varying interfaces

These are genuine benefits of standardised, VLE-based learning to offset against the disadvantages.


Most educators would accept that learners personalising their learning is a good thing, leading to greater ownership and more engagement. This would imply that educators have a key task of reducing or removing the constraints on this. Of the three constraints identified here (assessment, skills, support), the easiest one to help with is surely skills. So schools, universities and educational bodies need to help students acquire the skills they need – technical, judgement, networking and collaboration. Many already aspire to teach these skills, but it is unclear whether they are actually doing so.

To deal with technical skills first, a recent Canadian study (Vaughan et al, 2011) focused on student use of technology outside the classroom. In line with other studies noted, it confirmed the use of wide range of tools for collaboration and research, which students found extremely valuable. However, the authors also sounded a note of caution about the skills of students, and suggest that the university in this study, at any rate, is not delivering the technical skills students feel they need. This finding is worth quoting at length:

 “The assumption of many instructors in higher education is that Web 2.0 tools are already part of students’ everyday life, and, thus, no additional support is required (Lenhart et al., 2010). The comments provided by students in this study indicate that this is not always the case. They suggest that instructors provide “hands-on” tutorials and online resource to demonstrate how Web 2.0 technologies can be used to effectively and efficiently complete group work assignments. In addition, they recommend that post-secondary institutions provide “drop-in” centers where students can go for one-to-one help and assistance with technology tools.”

This is another consistent theme in the research (e.g. Kennedy et al, 2008) – because someone belongs to a certain generation, we cannot assume that they have certain technical skills. This puts a real responsibility on educational bodies to diagnose these skill gaps and seek to bridge them as far as possible, which in turn of course implies addressing skills gaps among educators as a matter of urgency.

With regard to the skill of how to evaluate information, this has of course usually formed part of what education, or even growing up, is about. In a sense, the development of the internet has just made the need for this more obvious. The science fiction writer Douglas Adams (1999) made this point with his customary clarity:

“Working out the social politics of who you can trust and why is, quite literally, what a very large part of our brain has evolved to do…What should concern us is not that we can’t take what we read on the internet on trust – of course you can’t, it’s just people talking – but that we ever got into the dangerous habit of believing what we read in the newspapers or saw on the TV – a mistake that no one who has met an actual journalist would ever make. One of the most important things you learn from the internet is that there is no ‘them’ out there. It’s just an awful lot of ‘us’.”

Finally, students need to acquire networking and collaboration skills. There may be some issues in achieving this in an educational system that tends to value individual achievement rather than group. It may even be that students are ahead of their instructors here. One recent study (Gross, 2011) even sees current increases in cheating and plagiarism as resulting from a profound shift in values, including an emphasis on communal rather than individual achievement. Gross suggests that we need to adapt to these new realities, not suppress them, which would be impossible in any case. How we adapt is another topic altogether, but my suspicion is that an occasional “group project” will not be sufficient, and more emphasis needs to be placed on teaching the skills needed to work effectively in groups.

Removing these obstacles to effective learning may be the most important thing we as educators can do.



Adams, D. (1999), ‘How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet’ Sunday Times, 29 August; [also online] (accessed 17 August 2012)

Conole, G. (2011) ‘Stepping over the edge: the implications of new technologies for education’ in Lee, M.J.W. and McLoughlin, C. (eds) Web 2.0-based E-learning: Applying Social Informatics for Tertiary Teaching, Hershey, PA, IGI Global

Furlong J. & Davies C. (2012) ‘Young people, new technologies and learning at home: taking context seriously’ Oxford Review of Education, vol. 38, iss. 1, pp.45-62

Gross, E. (2011), ‘Clashing Values: Contemporary views about cheating and plagiarism compared to traditional belief and practices’ Education, vol. 132 iss. 2, pp.435-440

Hardy, T. (1895), Jude the Obscure, London, Osgood, McIlvaine & Co

Kamenetz, A. (2010), DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, White River Junction, Chelsea Green

Kennedy, G.E., Judd, T.S, Churchward, A. and Gray, K. (2008) ‘First-year students’ experiences with technology: are they really digital natives?’, Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, vol.24, no.1, pp.108–22

Lenhart, A., Purcell, K., Smith. A. & Zickuhr, K. (2010), ‘Social media & mobile Internet use among teens and young adults’; [online] (accessed 17 August 2012)

McGonigal, J. (2011), Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, London, Jonathan Cape

Sclater, N. (2008) ‘Web 2.0, Personal Learning Environments, and the Future of Learning Management Systems’, Educause Center for Applied Research, Research Bulletin, vol. 2008, no.13; [also online], (accessed 17 August 2012)

Vaughan, N., Nickle, T., Silovs, J., Zimmer, J. (2011) ‘Moving To Their Own Beat: Exploring How Students Use Web 2.0 Technologies To Support Group Work Outside Of Class Time’, Journal of Interactive Online Learning, vol. 10, no. 3, pp.113-127; [also online], (accessed 17 August 2012)

Wheeler, S. (2009) ‘Two fingered salute’, blog entry posted 10 August 2009. Available from (accessed 17 August 2012)


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The privileged mode: does distance learning compromise quality?

Several years ago, my employer launched a new, comprehensive online programme. I was part of the launch, and we discussed some of the drivers for the programme. One of them was an interesting research finding about distance learning itself. For many, distance learning was a positive choice, not something they were forced into.

It is necessary to remember that the concept of distance learning is not at all new – my stepfather trained to be chartered accountant in the 1940s via a correspondence course. Our company had also provided distance learning for many years, with a package including texts, guidance and access to support. But face-to-face (F2F) training was a larger part of the business and there was always an assumption that it was a “better” way of learning. Anyone who could would naturally choose to learn F2F, whereas distance learning was available for those who could not afford it, or lived in a location where it was not feasible.

Our research demolished this assumption. It turned out that a significant number of distance learning students lived close to a teaching centre and they, or their employers, could perfectly well afford F2F study. However, they opted to study via distance learning because they liked the flexibility of studying without set classes, whether because of their temperament, personal commitments, the nature of their jobs or all of these. One of our responses was therefore to offer an enhanced distance learning product, with much better use of modern technology.

And yet the prejudice has persisted, in my own mind, at any rate. Of course online education is more flexible than F2F, it has the potential to be cheaper (or at least changes the economics of education, as per my previous blog post) but can it really provide education to rival the very best F2F?

In the last few weeks, a number of factors have lead me to answering this question with a decisive “yes”. To pick some of the highlights:

  • Sir John Daniel, CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning, cited the following statistic in a debate on The Economist website, “The UK Open University has created a multi-media learning system that enrols 200,000 students annually, operates at a lower cost than other UK universities, and ranks 5th, just above Oxford University, on aggregate ratings of teaching quality.” He goes on to argue that the trade-off sometimes discussed in education between cost and quality is misguided. He points out that technology now provides cars to the mass market of a quality that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. It has the potential to do the same for education.
  • In a detailed and careful study, Richardson (2009) surveyed students within two OU courses who had opted either for F2F or tutorial support. He concluded that, “…students who received face-to-face and online tuition evaluated the academic quality of their courses in a similar manner: in particular, they produced almost identical ratings of the quality of the tutoring.”
  • The discussion within our OU tutor group has highlighted some of the advantages of distance learning over F2F. In particular, because discussions build over time, they allow for more thought and reflection between contributions than may be possible in a F2F setting. Those who are less extrovert, or like to time their time to respond, may also find it much easier to take part in a online discussion than a F2F one.

Of course, none of this means that simply “putting courses online” is the answer to all our problems. Online learning needs careful design and support, using principles that are different and newer than F2F, so we have less experience of using them. Nonetheless, it is not going to be necessary to compromise on quality.

This point was summarised well in the intriguing “Manifesto for Teaching Online” produced by faculty and students at the University of Edinburgh. It begins,

“Distance is a positive principle, not a deficit. Online can be the privileged mode.”

The evidence, at least in my mind, is now there to back up this statement. But the second point in the manifesto is also important,

“The possibility of the ‘online version’ is overstated. The best online courses are born digital.”

It is perhaps inevitable that much online learning to date has had its roots in F2F teaching, then been transferred online. But increasingly, courses are being “born digital”, designed specifically and only for the online environment, or perhaps for a blended environment, and so more effective. We should expect these courses to have increasing impact in the coming years.



Richardson, J.T.E. (2009) ‘Face-to-face versus online tutoring support in humanities courses in distance education’, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, vol.8, no.1, pp.69–85


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