November 1, 2014

No. 6 aha moment: the convergence of online learning (from the periphery to the core)

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Joseph Kim's blended learning class at McMaster University

This is the seventh in a series of posts about the most seminal ‘discoveries’ in my researching and working in educational technology, where I discuss why I believe these ‘discoveries’ to be important, and their implications specifically for online learning. The others to date are:

My seven ‘a-ha’ moments in the history of educational technology (overview)

1.  Media are different.

2. God helps those who help themselves (about educational technology in developing countries).

3. Asynchronous is (generally) better than synchronous teaching

4. Computers for communication, not as teaching machines

5. The web as a universal standard

What was the discovery? (1995)

Not so much a discovery as a realization. This was the year I moved to a campus-based university, the University of British Columbia (UBC), after 25 years working solely in dedicated, open distance education institutions (the UK Open University and Open Learning Agency in British Columbia). The move was partly driven by a growing realization that the technologies being introduced into distance education, and especially online learning, would eventually transform campus-based teaching as well. This is just beginning to be fully realised 18 years later, through developments such as hybrid learning. However, the realization in 1995 was also accompanied by a unique opportunity to work in a major research university (some might call the realization cognitive dissonance). How did this come about?

In 1994, the government of British Columbia decided to hold back 2% of all post-secondary institutions’ operating budgets, and 1% the following year, to be placed in a fund to stimulate innovation in teaching in BC’s universities and colleges. This amounted to several million dollars in the case of UBC, so they decided to develop a comprehensive plan for teaching innovation, based mainly on the use of technology. Faculty and departments were asked to put forward specific proposals which went into the proposal to the government, and UBC received back all its ‘lost’ funding. This lead to the creation of a Centre for Educational Technology, which was set up originally to co-ordinate and support the innovation and research activities. One of the projects partially funded through this initiative was the development of WebCT, which was later bought out by Blackboard. I was hired (separately) as Director of Distance Education and Technology, but with an ‘unwritten’ mandate also to help with the development and application of learning technologies on campus.

Why is ‘convergence’ significant?

We are now at the point where in almost all subjects, students need to develop skills of knowledge management, the ability to find, evaluate, analyze, and apply information. They need to become adept at using the Internet for doing this. Furthermore these are not generic skills, but are deeply embedded within a particular subject domain. Thus such skills need to be integrated within the teaching of nearly all subjects.

In addition, there are now particular digital technologies that are essential within professional areas such as business, health, engineering, and education. Students (and faculty) need to be aware of the use, value and limitations of such technologies, which means embedding them within the teaching and learning. This applies whether the courses are offered on campus or at a distance.

The need to integrate digital technologies into nearly all courses, and the resulting convergence between online and campus activities, have significance for campus-based institutions, fully online institutions, and particularly for Continuing Education and Extension departments/divisions.

Significance for campus-based institutions

In a stretch of six months, I will have been invited to 13 universities across Canada to advise them on their use of learning technologies and strategies for online and especially blended or hybrid learning. We are now seeing a major transformation of teaching where online learning in particular is moving from the periphery to the centre, particularly in the form of hybrid learning (as I predicted in my Outlook for online learning for 2013).

This is forcing a major re-thinking of the standard, lecture-based teaching model. Since students can now access the lectures at home through lecture-capture and online video distribution, many interesting questions are being asked, to which we still  do not always have good answers:

  • What can the university or college offer that will make the morning commute for students worthwhile (not to mention faculty)?
  • How can institutions leverage more fully the benefits of the campus when students can do much of their learning more conveniently, and often more effectively, online?
  • For which students is fully online more appropriate than blended or hybrid learning?
  • What factors should drive the move to hybrid or fully online learning? Where do MOOCs fit within an institution’s strategy, if at all?
  • How do you decide what is best done online, and what face-to-face?
  • Is lecture capture the best way to use the online time?
  • What are the quality standards for hybrid learning?
  • Could the campus as a whole be made a more creative and student-centered space for learning?
  • What are the implications for the use of space, and in particular for future classroom requirements, of an increased move to hybrid or fully online learning?
  • What are the implications for faculty development and training?
  • What are the resource and governance implications of such a change?
  • Do we still need campus-based institutions? If so, what are the clear benefits over any time, anywhere learning? Is it worth the extra cost?

Thus the convergence of online and face-to-face teaching is immensely significant for campus-based universities and colleges.

Significance for distance education institutions

As brand name campus-based institutions move to wholly integrate online learning, where does this leave the dedicated distance and open universities such as the UK Open University? In fact, the DE universities in general have been very slow to adopt online learning for a variety of reasons, including concerns about access, especially in open universities, heavy investment in print and print inventories, and general inertia and bureaucracy associated with institutions built around mass production models.

Even more of a threat though to open and distance universities is the eroding of their market as campus-based institutions become more flexible through the use of hybrid and online learning.

Another threat comes from a related but different direction, and that is the increasing use of open educational resources and MOOCs from brand name campus universities.

We have recently seen at Athabasca University how these factors are starting to play out.

Ironically, I suspect that it will be much harder for these large, bureaucratic institutions to change quickly than many campus-based universities (as sclerotic as they are). Open and distance education universities will need urgently to find new teaching paradigms, new business models, and new markets if they are to survive, which some are doing, such as the UK Open University and the Open University of Catalonia.

Significance for Continuing Education and Extension departments

Distance education and more recently online learning have often been located in Continuing Education departments, even when the programs have been for credit as well as for non-credit.

However, as on-campus Faculties and Schools start to increasingly develop hybrid learning, the division between hybrid and fully online learning will start to break down. Once a Faculty or School has put more than half of its curriculum online, it is not a major step to offer the course or  program fully online as well, thus increasing the potential market. It does not make sense in such circumstances to have a separate division managing the online component. Indeed, it was such thinking that eventually led to me having to leave the University of British Columbia in 2003, because the university, quite rightly, wanted to integrate distance learning within its mainstream activities.

For many Continuing Education departments, the loss of credit-based online programming, and in particular the challenge of MOOCs (why pay for a non-credit online course when you can get one for free from Harvard?), will require a major rethinking of Continuing Studies’ budgets and above all their purpose. (Would it be too much to hope that they could return to being a free, open public service subsidized by the rest of the university, instead of the other way round?)

Conclusion

There’s a lot of talk about MOOCs transforming higher education. However, the real transformation is not coming from MOOCs (although they are helping) but from more traditional forms of credit-based online learning penetrating the heart of the enterprise. This is forcing faculty and institutions to re-think their whole approach to teaching.

Initially, much of it will be a straight transfer of lectures to online delivery, but over time, faculty will find new ways to re-design their teaching to integrate better online and face-to-face teaching, thus increasing effectiveness and leading to better and different learning outcomes. Significant indeed.

Comments

  1. “over time, faculty will find new ways to re-design their teaching to integrate better online and face-to-face teaching, thus increasing effectiveness and leading to better and different learning outcomes”

    Absolutely! Over time, virtual classrooms and virtual study groups with live video avatars in real time could bridge the face to face personal connection gap. A company called IVN has live video avatar software (Silhouette) that puts people in virtual worlds as live images with associated synchronized audio. With Silhouette, each user in a virtual world is able to see and be seen as a live streaming video avatar in real time. This heightened sense of presence and realism would facilitate more effective instruction and social networking. Silhouette would allow each online student to connect to and feel present in a real school type atmosphere and educational community, as well as establish “real time” face-to-face relationships with other classmates, as well as with their respective teachers.

    A proof of concept demo of Silhouette is available at http://www.ivn.net/demo.html

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