Blog: 2018

Tuesday, 06 March 2018

A lesson in innovation: Ángela Ruiz Robles

"Ángela Ruiz Robles with her Mechanical Encylopedia"
by ITU Pictures / License: CC BY 2.0

As a distance learning provider, the NEC was founded on the aspiration to widen access to education. Doing things differently is part of our DNA and innovative thinking has been required from day one.

From looking at how new technology can enhance distance learning to exploring different pedagogical methods – innovation continues to drive us forward. Once in a while it we like to reflect on how others innovate in education – to see if there are lessons to be learnt.

Last week, an article in the Guardian highlighted how a street in Madrid has been named after Spanish teacher and inventor, Ángela Ruiz Robles. The street-naming celebrates her contribution to education and innovation in Spain. It is part of a wider initiative in Madrid to bring previously overlooked work by pioneering female artists, writers, scientists and thinkers to light.

Ruiz Robles is remembered for her 1949 invention: the mechanical encyclopedia which can be retrospectively viewed as a visionary forerunner to the ebook.

The mechanical encyclopedia was described as a “mechanical, electric and air-pressure driven method for reading books”. It included audio, a magnifying glass and a light – plus different subject reels that could be swapped out.

Born in 1895, Ruiz Robles was a teacher, writer and lecturer. Whilst her mechanical encyclopedia won prizes and acclaim, it never gained the funding to launch as a product. A working prototype is now an important exhibit at the National Museum of Science and Technology in Spain.

Lesson 1: Innovation comes from passion

Ruiz Robles became an inventor for one simple reason: to help her students learn. She wanted to ‘make teaching easier: to get maximum knowledge with minimum effort’. As a teacher and writer, she wanted to find new ways to engage her students – as well as to lighten their satchels.

Lesson 2: Timing is key

In later life, Ángela returned to her invention project. Although technology had advanced by the 1970s – the timing still wasn’t right and the project reached prototype stage only. Who knows what educational innovations Ángela might have created, had she been working in today’s digital world?

Lesson 3: The long road to recognition

Recognition for Ángela’s mechanical encyclopedia only grew in the decades after her death in 1975. Innovative thinkers often don’t see the impact of their work. For Ángela and a host of other innovative women, Madrid’s street-naming project marks the end of a long road to recognition. It is great to see their vital contributions finally taking centre stage.

More about Madrid’s street-naming project

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Thursday, 01 March 2018

What can we learn from Finland?

The flag of Finland, a blue cross on a white field

A Finnish Education

No inspections, no tests, no uniforms and no fees. A valued teaching profession, shorter school days and starting school at seven. Do all these elements add-up to a world-leading education system? In Finland, it appears they do.

Finland has consistently ranked highly in the PISA tables. Held every three years, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey evaluates education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students.

How do the UK’s PISA rankings compare? Well, the results speak for themselves:

  UK ranking Finland ranking






PISA Rankings 2015 (Source)
Distance learning… the Finnish way

At the NEC we deliver a wide range of GCSE and A Level distance learning courses. To deliver national qualifications effectively, compliance with the wider UK education system is a necessity. However, working outside the school system does give us a certain freedom to innovate to create the best learning experience for our students.

By looking at the educational systems of other countries, we draw on ideas and best practice to inform the ‘NEC approach’. Finland offers plenty of food for thought…


We support a diverse range of students. Our courses must have the flexibility to suit a wide range of audiences – from those gaining qualifications for career progression, to pupils being home-schooled or individuals re-training in the armed forces.

Flexibility is key to the Finnish approach. Children don’t enter compulsory schooling until the age of seven. Once in school, the Finnish learning day is much shorter (four hours). Homework is also minimal, because Finnish parents trust that teachers cover enough during the school day – making home a space for children to enjoy other interests and family time.

A focused, time-efficient approach is a necessity for distance learners, who often juggle studying with work and family commitments. For those choosing to home-school, having the flexibility to balance learning with family time – as in Finland – is often seen as a real positive.


As a distance learning provider, innovation is part of our DNA. It helps us to ensure that NEC students have the same opportunity to succeed, as those learning in a face-to-face environment.

In Finland, experimentation and change in education is actively encouraged. The Finnish listen to and act upon new research. In fact, Finnish teachers often establish mini-labs to test different styles of teaching. They then keep what works and discard the ideas that don’t.

For distance learning, this pro-active, experimental approach could bring exciting progress – as technology opens up new ways for us to communicate and educate at a distance.


At the NEC, we are committed to going ‘above and beyond’ to support the learning experience of our students. We structure our resources so that from course administration through to academic delivery – quality support is available. We also have robust quality assurance processes to monitor and evolve how our students experience support.

Placing priority on pupil support is a key aspect of Finland’s approach. With smaller schools than in the UK, Finnish teachers have the time and attitude to focus on going the extra mile to support students when they need it.


At the NEC, we champion the right to access learning regardless of age, background, culture or circumstance. It is interesting to note that equality is also fundamental to Finland’s education system.

With no standardised testing or streaming by ability, the Finnish focus on learning – not competition, rankings or league tables. All Finnish schools work toward the same national goals, with equal access to one talent pool of teachers. The impact of equality in education is highlighted by the fact that, in Finland, the difference between the weakest and strongest students is the smallest in the world (source: OECD).

As a distance learning provider, it is inspiring to see how equality of access and experience can lead to outstanding results.

Find out more:

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Thursday, 22 February 2018

Learning barriers facing prisoners

 'Education is the most powerful weapon, which you can use to change the world.' - Nelson Mandela

Today's NEC Blog is written by Wendy Monaghan, who has considerable experience of working with distance learners in many different contexts and is currently at the University of East London. Her MA Leadership in Education dissertation was entitled: ‘Distance Learning Trends in Prisons in England and Wales.’

During his 27 years imprisonment Nelson Mandela studied for a degree via a correspondence course. South Africa’s first black president believed education to be the most powerful weapon available to change the world. Many would agree. But what are the special problems facing those detained in Her Majesty’s prisons who wish to follow Mandela’s example?

Access to education choice: Individuals in prison don’t always know what is available to them and educational opportunities vary from prison to prison, often focused on literacy and numeracy. The options are far more limited than those available within a college or university. Constraints are imposed by the availability of suitably trained teaching staff, the availability of resources, limited and restricted access to those resources, and the prisoner’s length of sentence – will he or she be able to complete all the necessary modules before being moved to another institution or released?

Access to materials: Whilst some distance learning organisations (like the NEC and the OU), provide paper-based materials for prison learners, many don’t offer an alternative, catering for the wider mass online market. This makes studying challenging as there is no access to the internet and less guidance from many providers on what and how to study especially if aiming for exams.

Access to resources: Alongside the paucity of materials is the very limited access to resources to support studying. The most notable is the restricted access to computers, not only for internet research, but for writing up assignments. Library visits may be for just 20 minutes. And whilst the library may stock some reference works and study guides, its main offer will be fiction.

Access to tutors: Whilst learners will have access to a tutor, it is often limited to short phone calls, letters and marked assignments. Phone calls will be brief and only at an allotted time. If the timing does not suit either tutor or learner, then it could be some time before contact can be made. With no access to email in prison, letters and posted marked assignments are the only written feedback and support. These are slow feedback mechanisms and if the written feedback creates further questions, the student must then try to contact the tutor again.

Quiet study: Prisons are noisy environments! There is a constant humdrum of shouting and doors banging, against a backcloth of people moving around all the time. Access to quiet areas to think let alone study are few.

“Most of us, in prison, tend to find really early mornings easier to study. It's the quietest part of the day in prison. It also feels better when you get up early for a purpose. The other really big thing for me was to talk about it. Whatever you are studying, there is something really valuable about trying to have conversations with people on the yard, or between sets at the gym. It helps for you to think about how to explain really complex topics in a really basic way. The better you get at explaining it in lay terms, the more it sinks in.”Gareth, Prisoners’ Education Trust course brochure 2018 (page 26)

Prisoner mobility: Sometimes a learner can be moved at short notice (often hours). Course materials can be left behind and at each prison a new assessment will be undertaken. Sometimes the new prison will not support the type of course that was supported previously, the prison may have a different educational focus or may not have the capacity to support the learner.

Exams: Should a learner complete their studies, they may need to take an exam to gain a qualification. A learner in prison has battled with all other challenges including maintaining their own motivation to get to the exams stage. There is the possibility that they will then be let down by administrative issues experienced within the prison or as a result of syllabus changes. Being a registered exam centre varies from prison to prison and a learner could undertake study and then be unable to take an exam at the end of it all.

“It can be difficult to motivate yourself, but what kept me going was that it would be a waste not to do it. I checked on my initial reasons for wanting to do the course, and I focused on those.”Sadiq, Prisoners’ Education Trust course brochure 2018 (page 42)

These are just some of the challenges that learners in prison face when they decide to enrol on a course – whether this be a short course, vocational, GCSE, A Level or degree.  The good news is that there is lots of work being done through charities such as the Prisoners’ Education Trust to support learning in prison. The Prisoner’s Education Trust is the lead for prison learning and has just published its 2018 prospectus.

The National Extension College supports prison learners to achieve qualifications by making essential adjustments such as providing hard copies of learning materials and sending out additional copies should a learner be moved to a new prison at short notice.

All this support provides opportunities in prison that would otherwise not be an option and supports learners in developing themselves both personally as well as educationally and professionally.

Those who undertake any form of learning whilst in prison deserve congratulation for their perseverance and commitment to overcoming the many barriers.

Those barriers are formidable, but many prisoners over many years have been grateful for the unstinting support available from the National Extension College, without which very many would be denied access to learning.

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Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Ignite your love of learning this Valentine’s day

An open book with two pages curled together forming the shape of a heart

It’s Valentine’s day, so we thought we’d talk about our biggest love at NEC: learning! There are so many reasons to love learning, these are our top 5.

1: There are so many ways to learn!

If the thought of a classroom sends you running for the hills, you can learn online, like an NEC course. You can watch videos, do quizzes and even have a personal tutor. The speed that modern technology is advancing is making the learning landscape an exciting place to be.

2: You can learn at any age.

The official school leaving age has risen to 18, but even if you’re not planning on going on to University, your learning journey doesn’t have to end there. NEC welcomes students of all ages.

3: You can study, well, just about anything.

Whatever your passion—English, maths, science, Latin or perhaps the history of art—chances are you’ll be able to find a course on it. NEC, for example, has over 80 courses, including all of the topics we just mentioned and many more!

4: It builds confidence.

Time and time again, we hear that one of the results of learning, is building confidence. If you have been out of study for a while, it can be daunting to start again. Taking a course can help you to build the confidence to take the next steps in your learning journey.

5: It can change your life!

Getting back into learning really can change your life. As well as building confidence, it can open the doors to a new career or to a promotion. In a recent survey of NEC students, more than 50% of respondents said that they went on to further or higher study as a result of taking an NEC course. One respondent told us that as a result of taking a course, he was able to become ordained. Another told us that her course led to her publishing two books.

We hope that the reasons for our passion for education help you to ignite your own love of learning. If you want to take a step on your learning journey, take a look at our range of courses and see if there’s one for you!

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Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Tips for beating the January Blues

Calendar page with the 15th of the month circled in red pen

It’s early January, and as the sparkle of Christmas fades, we begin to edge back into our daily routines. Perhaps you are relishing a return to normality or embracing a new challenge? Or maybe you find the cold, dark days of January a bit of a struggle?

It’s not unusual to find January a little tough-going. In fact, it is recognised that January presents a set of natural, psychological and physical factors which can combine to cause both mental and physical symptoms.

Scientists have proved a causal connection between the low level of daylight we receive in January and a complex depressive illness known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Low exposure to sunlight has an impact on hormone levels (melatonin and serotonin) in the part of the brain that controls mood, sleep and appetite.

Symptoms of SAD are wide-ranging and can include depression, lack of energy, concentration problems, anxiety, overeating, and social and relationship problems. However, the impact of SAD varies significantly from person to person. At one end of the scale, around 20% of the UK population experience the ‘Winter Blues’ – feeling tired, grumpy and a bit down. At the other extreme, some people experience more debilitating depression and must seek treatment in order to be able to continue going about their daily lives.

Psychological pressure plays its part too. During Christmas and New Year, we are bombarded by cultural messages about being part of a family, enjoying time with friends, experiencing happiness and creating new life-goals. It’s not surprising that this can sometimes leave us feeling inadequate and low – especially if we don’t feel we quite match up to the ‘perfect’ picture portrayed. Add to this the physical factors associated with this time of year – over-consumption of alcohol, poor diet and lack of exercise – and it comes as no surprise that January can spell disaster for our mood and mental health.

Today, the challenges of January are well-recognised. We even have a (not particularly scientific!) mathematical formula for calculating when ‘Blue Monday’ – the single most depressing day of the year – will occur. Originally initiated by a PR company, Blue Monday is now a widely known annual event. It is calculated based on: the weather, debt level, amount of time since Christmas, time since failing our New Year’s resolutions, low motivational levels and the feeling of a need to take charge. Based on this formula, you can expect Blue Monday 2018 to hit on January 15.

So, as we trudge on through Blue Monday and the rest of January, here are some tips to help you beat the January Blues:

  1. Let the sunshine in
    Open up blinds and curtains, seek a window seat or head outside to gain some extra daylight. Clinically-tested light units are also available, which mimic natural outdoor light. These have been shown to have a positive effect on brain chemicals linked to mood.
  2. Swap Prosecco for H2O
    Staying hydrated is a simple way to feel better. Drinking at least eight glasses of water a day will remove toxins and waste, as well as preventing headaches and joint pain. If you’re giving alcohol a break, then taking part in a Dry January fundraiser such as Cancer Research UK’s Dryathlon could deliver the boost of positivity and motivation you need.
  3. Take a Norwegian mind-set
    In Norway, winter is positively embraced, rather than endured. This shift in mind-set finds and celebrates the positives associated with the season – from getting cozy by the fire, to drinking hot beverages, skating or building a snowman, they are there if we look hard enough!
  4. Wrap up, head out
    Grab that scarf your Great Aunt Fran knitted you for Christmas and put it to good use. Taking a short, brisk walk in the cold is enough to boost your exercise and improve your mood. Just wrap up well – the great outdoors is waiting.
  5. Take small steps
    Ignore the pressure to embark on grand plans or resolutions – this can create feelings of inadequacy and failure. Instead, try to focus on one small step that points you in a new direction. That might simply be researching a new course or take a small amount of time to re-discover a hobby. Small steps can be achieved. Why not take advantage of our New Year, New You offer? With 15% off all our GCSEs and A Levels it is a really great time to get started on your ambitions.

For further information and support on Winter Blues and SAD and how to seek help if you feel you need it see:

  • Mind – the mental health charity
  • NHS – information about SAD


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