Monday, 23 April 2012

Harnessing the Power of Web-based Technologies in Construction Education

I gave a presentation at a conference in Birmingham on 12th April. The event was the first time ever which the Associated Schools of Construction had held its annual conference outside of the US. It was co-hosted by the Council of Heads of Built Environment (CHOBE)

My presentation was about the potential provided by the huge range of web-based technologies we now have available to us. In recent decades construction higher education has seen a significant shift away from the traditional instructional model of higher education towards a new model which promotes social learning, collaboration, student engagement, participation and reflection. The central point of the presentation was that Web 2.0 technologies fit in perfectly with this approach to education. As Martin Weller puts it in his new book "The Digital Scholar" (citing Conole, 2008):

"Arguably there has never been a better alignment of current thinking in terms of good pedagogy .... with current practices in the use of technologies" 

However, despite this alignment, we cannot assume that students entering higher education are conversant with all the new technologies. In the presentation I refer to the results of a simple survey of students joining the Construction Studies Programme at Westminster in 2011. The survey shows that most students have very limited experience of using the new technologies, so if we are to fully exploit their potential then we need to provide guidance to students.

Finally in the presentation, I propose the establishment of an online community of practice for construction academics to share good practice and provide mutual support.

The full presentation can be viewed via Slideshare here:

Harnessing the power of web-based technologies in construction education

Conole G., (2008) "New Schemas for Mapping Pedagogies and Technologies." "Ariadne." 56  [Online] Available at  Accessed 23rd April 2012

Thursday, 29 March 2012

My Personal Learning Environment

I'm currently preparing a presentation for the ASC / CHOBE Conference at Birmingham City University in April. In the presentation I talk about the potential power of Web 2.0 technologies in construction education and I make reference to personal learning environments. I had a go at defining my own personal learning environment almost two years ago as part of my OU studies, but I thought it was time I updated it. So here's my latest effort:

Three things really strike me in comparing this version to the one from 2010. Firstly, the sheer increase in the number of applications and devices I am using, and the fact that I can access virtually all of the applications from all of the devices, and in most cases they are all synchronised. Secondly, I have introduced graphical references to 'the cloud'. This is to represent the fact that, increasingly, all the data I am accessing is being stored remotely. I still keep files on my own devices, but a lot of the stuff I access on a daily basis is held elsewhere. Finally, one of the most significant changes is that I have removed any distinction between different aspects of my life. Thus, I haven't really distinguished between work-based applications, personal stuff, and those aspects related to my studies. I'm not sure whether this is a positive change, but I have definitely experienced a blurring of the boundaries between different aspects of my digital life!

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Thinking about tuition fees

I've been thinking a lot about tuition fees lately. I wrote a blog post a few weeks back about the potential impact of tuition fees on part time students, but I've also been wondering how the new system will affect higher education in general. 

I've just watched an excellent film on Vimeo called "I melt the glass with my forehead" which really examines the whole issue in some detail. I've embedded the video below and although it's fifty minutes long I think it's well worth a watch for anyone interested in the subject.

"I melt the glass with my forehead" from Heraclitus Pictures on Vimeo.

Personally, I think about the issue from a number of different perspectives. Firstly I wonder what impact tuition fees would have had on my life if they had been around when I entered higher education. Mine wasn't a traditional route into HE. I left school without A-Levels and went to work. I attended college on a day-release basis to gain an ONC qualification. Then, after about six years in work I decided at the age of 24 to return to full time education to gain a HND. I didn't have to pay any tuition fees, and I even received a small maintenance grant which was a real help to me in making that difficult decision to give up paid employment. The HND enabled me to progress on to a degree and subsequently to become professionally qualified. I'm fairly sure that if I'd had to pay tuition fees and saddle myself with a significant debt, I wouldn't have done it. I can't help thinking that mature students will be disproportionally affected by the the new fees, and many of them will simply be put off higher education. That is a great shame.

Secondly, I think about tuition fees as a parent. I have two teenage children. Only a few years ago I would have confidently expected both of them to go to university, but now I have my doubts. One of them has already expressed serious reservations about university and the other is undecided. Whilst I can't help feeling a twinge of disappointment, I'm certainly not going to put pressure on them. Under the new regime young people will undoubtedly think much more carefully before deciding to go to university, and will only go if they think the long term rewards will outweigh the costs. Perhaps that is a good thing, since it should in theory mean that those who do enter higher education are genuinely committed to it. However, it also means that an awful lot of young people are likely to forgo the potentially life-changing experience of university.

That brings me to my third perspective, which is as a university lecturer. My subject area (construction and surveying) is essentially vocational, so it is possible that we will be less affected by the new fees system than the more traditional, academic subject areas. I suspect that many young people will choose to study subjects that are likely to provide a direct entry route to a professional career, so accredited courses in professional areas may well benefit from the new regime. Nevertheless, it will be a great shame for the country as a whole if applications to degree courses in the arts and humanities decline significantly. Society needs the thinkers and the creative minds which such courses produce. 

Monday, 6 February 2012

H809: Week 1 – Activity 1.4: Reading Hiltz and Meinke (1989): Teaching sociology in a virtual classroom

Overview of paper
The paper describes a study conducted between 1986 and 1988 at two colleges in New Jersey. Comparisons were made between the performance and perceptions of students studying a variety of sociology courses traditionally as against those studying in a virtual classroom or in ‘mixed mode’.  The results were derived from a statistical analysis of questionnaire surveys completed by students on the courses.

As an aside, one of the first things that struck me about this study was that the research took place between 1986 and 1988. During this period I was actually studying on a part time (day release) basis for my first degree. I am quite surprised that the technology which was the subject of this paper was even available. When I think back to my own studies at that time, electronic communications of any type were not even on the horizon!

Questions: What research questions are being addressed?
In summary the research sought to establish whether course delivery via a virtual classroom could achieve comparable outcomes to those of traditional face-to-face delivery. Additionally, the research identify the factors which contributed to positive or negative outcomes.

Setting: What is the sector and setting? 
The research was based in a higher education setting, and specifically within two New Jersey colleges. I’m not completely sure of the distinction between colleges and universities in America, so the UK equivalent setting might be more FE than HE. Nevertheless, the setting is clearly one of formal education, and the students in the research were studying  sociology courses.

Concepts: What theories, concepts and key terms are being used?
I would say that the fundamental concept under consideration is that of education. Early in the paper (p432) a definition of education is provided, and in very simple terms the researchers were simply trying to determine whether the objectives of education can be achieved using computer-mediated communication. Key educational terms used include collaborative learning; mastery of subject; access to educational activities; interest, involvement and motivation; interaction.
Educational technology is also a key concept, and the widely used terms are virtual classroom and computer-mediated communication.

Methods: What methods of data collection and analysis are used? 
The main data collection technique used was the questionnaire survey. Surveys were administered to students both before and after they took courses. The questionnaires were analysed statistically which is obviously a quantitative approach. In addition a qualitative approach was adopted through participant observation of the online conferences.

Findings: What did this research find out?
The key finding was that the use of the virtual classroom can “increase access to and effectiveness of college education”. There were some variations in the outcomes between courses, and particularly between courses at different levels, the significant finding was that the virtual classroom represented a “viable option” for post-secondary educational delivery.

Limitations: What are the limitations of the methods used?
Since the primary data collection technique was a questionnaire survey, I would say that the main limitation was that respondents are simply selecting their responses limited range of possible options and there is no opportunity to investigate the underlying significance of the results at a deeper level (such as would be possible using interviews).

Ethics: Are there any ethical issues associated with the research?
One possible ethical issue that springs to mind is that the researchers may have been enthusiastic about the technology, and therefore perhaps approached the research with a tacit expectation or hope that the technology would be shown to produce positive outcomes.

Implications: What are the implications (if any) for practice, policy or further research?
It is important to recognise that this research was conducted over 25 years ago. Clearly at the time, the use of the virtual classroom would have been highly innovative, and the results of this study would have been sufficient to warrant further studies and more widespread implementation.


Hiltz, S.R. and Meinke, R. (1989) ‘Teaching sociology in a virtual classroom’, Teaching Sociology, vol. 17, no. 4, pp. 431–46. 

Monday, 16 January 2012

Impact of tuition fees on part time construction degree courses

Most of the furore over the new higher education tuition fees has considered the issue from the perspective of full time students, but construction degree courses are widely offered on a part time, day-release basis. How will the new fees affect these courses?

The new system
There has been understandable concern over the new tuition fees for university courses which will come into effect in September 2012. Students enrolling on degree courses will be liable to pay annual tuition fees of up to £9000 per year. The mechanism which is to be used to recover the fees is the student loan system, so students will not have to pay fees up front but will effectively receive a loan to cover the fees. The Student Loans Company (a government-owned organisation) pays the tuition fees directly to the University on behalf of the student. After graduation, students only start making repayments once they are earning £21,000 or more. At that point, they are required to pay 9% annually of everything they earn over £21,000. Thus, a student earning a salary of £25,000 will pay 9% of £4,000 (£360), which equates to £30 per month.

That might sound reassuring, in the sense that new graduates (particularly those earning relatively small salaries) are not burdened with excessive repayments in the early years of their careers. Nevertheless, the fact remains that most graduates will effectively have debts of around £27,000 just for tuition fees, and may have racked up further debts if they have borrowed money to cover accommodation, food travel etc. (so-called maintenance loans). Consequently, there have been many scare stories about young people being saddled with £40,000 of debt at the age of 21. However, the student loan is actually very different from a normal debt. As the money-saving expert, Martin Lewis, points out, it isn’t strictly a loan at all but a “hybrid form of finance ..... half way between traditional borrowing and taxation”. The key differences are as follows:
  •          Repayments are made automatically through the tax system
  •          Repayments are made only when earnings go above the threshold (£21,000)
  •          If earnings drop below the threshold, repayments stop, so if someone loses their job they do not have to continue paying.
  •          Repayments continue for a maximum of 30 years only, after which any remaining debt is wiped.

When the new tuition fees were first proposed, my understanding was that a key principle of the system would be that everyone going to university would have to take out a student loan. That way there would be no advantage for people from wealthy families who are able to pay their fees up-front and thus avoid the burden of debt after graduation. There was certainly some debate about this, but it seems that system introduced does allow up-front payment, and indeed many universities offer a discount for payment in this way. I personally don’t agree with that in principle, but that’s beside the point. What I am currently somewhat confused about is the question of part time students who are sponsored by their employers.

Part time students
At the University of Westminster just over 50% of the 600 students on the various courses in the Construction Studies Undergraduate Programme are part time students. These students attend University on one full day per week, and complete their degree courses over a five year period. A significant number of these students are sponsored by their employers, i.e. employers pay the students’ fees and allow them a day off work each week to attend university. There has been a long tradition in the construction industry of ‘day-release’ education whereby new entrants to the industry combine their studies with paid employment. Although it is demanding, it is a fantastic way to learn, because students are gaining valuable workplace experience alongside their studies and can thus contextualise much of what they learn in the classroom. At Westminster we have served the part time market for decades, and up until the recent downturn in the industry we actually had significantly more part time students than full time students on our construction courses.

So what is the likely impact of the new tuition fees on part time student numbers? Well, the answer at the moment is that no one really knows. Part time students will pay fees on a pro-rata basis to the same level as full time students. This means that our part time students will be paying between £4000 and £6000 a year (depending on the number of modules they are studying), as compared with £8000 for full time students. One key difference for part time students under the new system is that, for the first time, they will be able to apply for a loan in the same way as full time students. Potentially, this is could be positive move for prospective part time students who don’t have employer sponsorship. But how are employers going to view the new fee system? If employers are considering taking on trainees with a view to sponsoring them through university courses, how will the new fees affect those decisions? Some important questions spring to mind:
  •         Are employers actually aware of the implications of the new fees?
  •          Will they still be willing to pay tuition fees up front at the new levels?
  •          Will student employees be expected to apply for loans and pay their own fees?
  •          What is the government’s position in respect of employer-sponsored part time students?

I think it will be important for us as a University to engage with employers to find out what they are thinking. Of course the current economic climate means that construction employers are less likely to be taking on new recruits, so this will make it even more difficult to establish a clear picture.

Some people believe that in the next few years the distinction between full time and part time students will become increasingly blurred. Most students will need to be in employment alongside their studies just to survive, so the concept of a full time course or a part time course might simply disappear. Students may simply complete modules at a pace which suits their circumstances, and accumulate credits towards their degree over different periods of time. Universities will have to be proactive in making their courses available through more flexible modes of delivery.

Personally, I think the part time, ‘day release’ tradition in the construction industry has much to commend it, and it would be great shame if it were to disappear. However, I can’t help thinking that the combination of low levels of activity in the industry and much higher tuition fee levels will have a significant impact.

I would be really interested to hear other people’s views on this issue, particularly from construction industry employers, current or prospective students, or university staff. Leave a comment below, or email me directly on

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Social Media and my New Year’s Resolution

I’ve never been a great one for New Year’s resolutions. In fact I often think that the New Year is not a good time to give things up or start a new regime. However, I’m going to make an exception this year, and it’s all about social media....

2011 was the year in which I really embraced online technologies. I had dabbled with various technologies for a long time prior to 2011 but over the past 12 months I have really got hooked in. The ease with which online services can now be accessed has been the key factor in my increased usage. Having internet access from my PC, laptop, iPad and smartphone means that there are now very few places where I can’t engage in online activities. Consequently I can take advantage of storing and accessing files online (using DropBox or Google Docs), managing photographs online using Picasa, using an online notebook (Evernote) which I can access from any device, using a social bookmarking service (Diigo) and downloading books and newspapers to my iPad and/or smartphone. This is all in addition to the things I have done for several years, such as managing emails, calendar and contacts from any device via an Exchange server, and downloading and listening to music on my smartphone. I have to confess to being a bit of a sucker when it comes to gadgets and technologies and I’m really interested in new ways of working which take advantage of online services. However, I’d like to think that I’m quite discerning in my choice of technologies, and I will generally only commit to new stuff if I can see genuine benefits in terms of efficiency, or rewards in terms of enjoyment or personal interest.

What about social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter? I’ve had a Facebook account for a couple of years, and in that time I have posted maybe only twenty or thirty times. However, I do look at Facebook almost every day just to see what friends and family all over the world are up to, so whilst I don’t contribute much to Facebook, I still value it as a connection with people who are important to me. I also have a Twitter account, and during 2011 I really got into Twitter in quite a big way, looking at Twitter streams several times a day. However, as with Facebook I would consider myself to be primarily a viewer rather than a contributor. Nevertheless, I can confidently say that I have gained a huge amount from Twitter over the past year, particularly in terms of links to useful resources or interesting articles.

Then there’s blogging. I am an avid reader of many blogs and I use Google Reader to bring them all together in one place. Yet I can’t really seem to maintain a momentum with writing my own blog (This is the first blog post I have written since June 2011). I have managed to keep it going whilst studying courses for the Open University’s postgraduate programme in Online and Distance Education but as soon as each course has ended, my blogging has also seemed to stop.

So it seems that I am what might be termed a ‘passive’ user of social media, who mainly ‘consumes’ rather than actively engages with the content. And yet I really feel that I could be getting so much more out of these services. In a strange way I sometimes envy my teenage children who interact so regularly and so freely on Facebook and Twitter with dozens of other people. Don’t get me wrong, I have no desire to spend half my life telling everyone on Twitter what I had for breakfast, but I would like to exploit the potential benefits of social media to a much greater extent. I have realised that, as with most things in life, you really only get out what you put in. So my New Year’s resolution is to make much more of an effort to contribute to the various media. My rationale is to try to promote and become part of a more active online community which includes but extends beyond my current circle of friends, colleagues, contacts and acquaintances. I genuinely think that there is a lot to be gained from being part of such a community. Specifically, I intend to:
·         Use Twitter much more actively, by tweeting more regularly myself, retweeting others, seeking out more interesting people to follow and generating more followers for myself.
·         Contribute to Facebook more frequently, by commenting on posts by friends and family and by posting myself.
·         Maintaining my blog more effectively by setting myself a target of at least one blog post per week, and promoting the blog more widely.

And finally, just for fun, I have started an online photo-journal in which I am proposing to upload a photo every day during 2012. I’m sure most of the photos will be very boring, but it will be an interesting record of the year in pictures.

My Twitter name is @tonyburke1
My photo-journal can be found at