December 20, 2014

Look back in anger? A review of online learning in 2013

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Toronto's mayor was the story of 2013 in Canada

Toronto’s mayor was the story of 2013 in Canada

Well, where did 2013 go? It seems like only last week I was writing the 2012 review!This year, I did better with my predictions for 2013 in my Outlook for Online Learning in 2013, as we shall see

Another year of the MOOC

Audrey Watters provides a comprehensive overview of developments around MOOCs in 2013. She concluded:

 If 2012 was, as The New York Times decreed, the year of the MOOC, 2013 might be described as the year of the anti-MOOC as we slid down that Gartner Hype Cycle from the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” and into the “Trough of Disillusionment.” 

Certainly, MOOCs dominated the online learning agenda during 2003. However, it is in my view too early to decide that MOOCs are now on the slope of disillusionment, despite Sebastian Thrun’s throwing his hands in the air at Udacity. According to the European Commission, at the end of 2013 there are more than 1,100 MOOCs worldwide, and the shock wave continues to ripple well beyond North America into other parts of the world.

I will write more about where I see MOOCs going in my Outlook for 2014 in the new year, but looking back, I wouldn’t change anything that I wrote about MOOCs at the end of 2012:

© The Greening of Gavin, 2012

© The Greening of Gavin, 2012

Indeed, developments during 2013, with one exception, have merely reinforced my 2012 position. The exception came from listening to Stephen Downes in Lyon talking about his vision of cMOOCs, which, if or when fully implemented, would be much more interesting than anything we have seen to date from the major MOOC providers. Indeed, I was struck by a recent comment from someone with 15 years of experience in designing face-to-face, blended and online credit programs: I am trying to understand what MOOCs can offer that my understanding of educational design, learning design and online and distance education does not include. I’m afraid that the answer continues to be: ‘Nothing,‘ at least for the moment.

Indeed, in many ways, MOOCs have become a major distraction from developing more innovative and more relevant applications of online learning for credit. MOOCs may be free to learners, but they are not free for institutions. With the average cost of just developing an xMOOC being between $50,000 – $100,000, this means that with over 1,000 MOOCs, more than $50 million to $100 million has been spent on non-credit courses that could have been spent on producing online courses for credit, leading to recognized credentials. In itself, this focus on non-formal learning might be OK, if it was tied to some clear policy objective, but we certainly haven’t seen the return on investment from MOOCs to date.

Of course, this money is unlikely to have been spent on online credit courses if MOOCs hadn’t come along. It has to be recognized that MOOCs have grabbed the attention of elite universities who until the advent of MOOCs had paid no attention to online learning. More importantly MOOCs have also gotten the attention of university boards of governors, politicians, policy-makers and even government ministers, which credit-based online learning has never done. This has forced many universities for the first time to think strategically about online learning, and where MOOCs fit within such a strategy, which has been really good for my consultancy business – and probably for credit-based online learning as well.

The problem though is that outside those with experience or knowledge of online learning, MOOCs are being seen (and deliberately portrayed by elite universities) as the only form of online learning worth considering. The danger is that if or when the MOOC bubble bursts, all forms of online learning could be tarred with the same brush at the same time. However, this is looking forward, and early in the new year I will discuss more about where I think MOOCs are going in my Outlook for 2014.

The key point here is that while MOOCs may have been getting the media attention, for most professionals working in online learning in post-secondary education, what was happening within the institutions was rather different. Let’s look at some of these other developments in 2013.

Institutional strategies for online learning

Partly as a result of MOOCs, but also because of moves toward integrating online learning with classroom teaching, a number of institutions have either developed or started to develop a more strategic approach to online learning. For instance, I was personally involved in discussions around strategic planning for online learning in 2013 with the University of British Columbia, the University of Ottawa, York University, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Thompson Rivers University, and Western University, in Canada, and Deakin University, in Australia. I can’t think of another year where there has been so much interest at an institutional level in thinking strategically about online learning.

These plans meant setting priorities and goals for online and hybrid learning and in some cases targets for online course development. In Ontario this was partly driven by government intervention, requiring universities and colleges to come forward with their plans for online learning as part of a broader exercise in defining clear institutional mandates. Tied to these strategies were considerations of resources, organization and methods of working, some of which will be described more fully below.

From the periphery to the centre

The focus on strategies for online learning resulted in some cases in thinking about appropriate types of organization to support online learning. In many Canadian universities, online learning had been seen as an extension of distance education, and hence the responsibility mainly of Continuing Studies or Extension Departments, but with the move to hybrid learning and the move to online professional masters programs, mainline academic departments are needing access to the skills of instructional designers and web designers that until recently had been located elsewhere.

No single solution to this issue seems to have been found, but many Canadian institutions now have established central units that report to the Provost and serve the faculties directly. As well as including support for online learning, these units now also cover general faculty development as well as distance learning.This has the advantage of facilitating the transfer of teaching innovations from one academic department throughout the institution. In some institutions these centres for teaching, learning and technology have grown rapidly, with some numbering more than 60 staff.

Hybrid learning

I saw in 2013 many Canadian universities and some colleges introducing flipped classrooms, where students view a taped lecture then come to class to discuss, solve problems, or do project work around the topic of the lecture. This is particularly popular for breaking up large lecture classes and making them more interactive.

While I did come across some interesting discussions about the implications of this for classroom furniture and the design and layout of classrooms, I didn’t come across more radical designs that moved away from taping lectures to really thinking about the affordances of online learning and the campus from a design perspective. Maybe next year.

Steelcase Node Classroom

Steelcase Node Classroom

An increased push from government to use online learning for greater academic productivity

In Ontario, the Minister for Training, Colleges and Universities starkly presented the situation facing universities and colleges in Ontario over the next few years: take more students, produce better quality outcomes, but receive no more money, because there isn’t any. He challenged the institutions to look to technology to increase productivity. The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario commissioned a report on online learning, productivity and quality.

Ontario is not alone. Severe funding cuts in the USA has led governments, particularly state governors, to press the case for online learning to provide a lower cost alternative to campus-based education. At a Federal level, the Obama government has poured millions of dollars into fostering open educational resources. In British Columbia, the government is bringing in an open textbook program to reduce students’ textbook costs. MOOCs, rightly or wrongly, have led politicians and policy-makers to believe that online learning can dramatically reduce costs.

This is an interesting development, because until recently, most online learning professionals have been more than happy if their online students performed as well as the on-campus counterparts, and could do this at no more cost. Partly because of the fear of push-back from academics, (‘Online learning will take our jobs away’), the argument has rarely been made that online learning could lead to better results at less cost. Increased productivity up to now has not been a key goal for online learning (access and flexibility have been the key rationales). This is changing, and as professionals we need to be better prepared for this push, which is why I tried this year to start a debate about online learning and productivity through a series of posts.

Open educational resources

There were three significant developments in OERs (apart from MOOC) in 2013 for me:

  • the BC open textbook project, which is now under way, which aims to save students $800-$1,000 a year on textbooks
  • the formation of the OERu, which aims to enable students to acquire full degree credentials from recognized universities through free, open courses
  • OER4Adults, an overview and analysis of practices with Open Educational Resources in adult education in Europe, which sets out the ‘tensions’ that inhibit greater use of OERs

What interested you?

Below are the top 10 posts in terms of ‘hits’ during 2013. (All posted in 2013, except where the first year posted is given. Number of hits refers though only to 2013, not all-time total hits for earlier posts):

Top 10 posts for 2013

Recommended graduate programs in e-learning (2008) 13,190
What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs (2012) 8,814
Can you teach ‘real’ engineering at a distance? (2009) 5,800
What Is Distance Education? (2008) 5,652
The world’s largest supplier of free online learning? (2012) 5,146
Outlook for online learning in 2013:  5,138
Online learning in California generates controversy 4,992
What’s going on at Athabasca University?
3,440
MOOCs, MIT and Magic 3,226
E-learning quality assurance standards,… and research (2010) 2,977

Four of the top five are of particular interest to graduate students, and are mainly the result of ‘trawling’ for information about graduate programs available online. (Incidentally, the post on the world’s largest supplier of free online learning wasn’t about MOOCs, but about Alison, an online provider of training materials.)

I was interested to note that the top five posts were all posted before 2013. One reason for this of course is that many posts in 2013 are of less than 12 months duration, so have had less time to build interest. If we look at the top 10 posted in 2013, we would add to the four above the following:

How online learning is going to affect classroom design 2,370
Harvard’s current thinking on MOOCs 1,490
MOOCs, Norway, and the ecology of digital learning 1,333
Discussing design models for hybrid/blended learning and the impact on the campus 1,283
North Korea launches two MOOCs 1,200
MIT, learning technologies, and developing countries: lessons in technology transfer 1,077
My seven ‘a-ha’ moments in the history of educational technology 1,069

So four of the top 10 posts in 2013 were about MOOCs, and two were about hybrid learning.

Although only one of my eight posts on ‘aha’ moments in educational technology got into the top 10, the series as a whole did quite well, with a total of 5,200 hits, or an average of 650 hits per post. Also, the Nine Steps to Quality Online Learning, started in 2012, continued to do well during 2013, with 6,470 hits for an average of 808 per post. Similarly, the series Models for Selecting and Using Technology, started in 2011, also did well during 2013, with 2,341 hits for an average of 585 per post. I’m getting a better rate of persistence on these series than many MOOCs, by the way.

On the other hand, my series on productivity and online learning has generally been a bust, with hits averaging around 200 per post. However, this is, I hope, a series that will, like some of my other series, build over time, as more and more people come to realise its importance. It is still early days yet.

I’d be really interested to hear from readers where I should be focusing my posts in 2014.

Conclusions

Another interesting year, but also a frustrating one, mainly due to the MOOC phenomenon. There are far more important developments going on in online learning than MOOCs, and the continuous hype, arrogance, and ignorance particularly of the MOOC computer scientists in elite universities has made me more angry than I have been since the dot com bust in 2000, when the media and elite universities were bragging about turning online learning into a huge money-making machine – and we know how that ended.

Nevertheless, MOOCs have been important in getting online learning noticed, even if for the wrong reasons. Let’s hope 2014 will see a more focused approach on improving productivity while maintaining or increasing the quality of post-secondary education. It is clear that the system cannot go on in the way it has been going, and online learning can play an important role, as much in improving quality as in reducing costs.

However, it is important to set realistic expectations. There is no single, simple solution to improving a vast complex, higher education system. There is no silver bullet.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Indeed, I was struck by a recent comment from someone with 15 years of experience in designing face-to-face, blended and online credit programs: I am trying to understand what MOOCs can offer that my understanding of educational design, learning design and online and distance education does not include. I’m afraid that the answer continues to be: ‘Nothing,‘ at least for the moment. – Tony Bates […]

  2. […] Look back in anger? A review of online learning in 2013. […]

  3. […] a bit late to this party, but there have been some good 2013 summaries of the ed tech world, and Tony Bates’ summary was the one that has resonated the most with me so far.  I think he’s dead-on in his […]

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