April 23, 2014

Synergies between online learning, on-campus teaching and flexible learning

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Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

Kiczcales, G. (2014) Online to improve on-campus Digital Learning Blog, UBC, Vancouver BC, April 14.

UBC’s flexible learning strategy

Nearly two weeks ago, Eric Grimson, the Chancellor of MIT, and I spent a day at the University of British Columbia consulting on the university’s strategy for flexible learning. I’ve been somewhat constrained by a confidentiality agreement, as UBC’s flexible learning strategy is still at the development stage and has yet to be formally approved, but one of the Provost’s team responsible for developing its strategy, Gregor Kiczales, has an interesting blog that he describes as a conversation about digitization of the channel between educators and learners, and what that means for university education. 

The impact of online learning on the campus

In his most recent post, Gregor discusses ‘one of the most important themes they [Eric and I] both stressed: the main reason for a university like UBC to explore online learning is to improve the on-campus learning experience.’ Certainly it was one of the points I made, that a combination of online learning and campus teaching will offer benefits to many students, by increasing flexibility and also by enabling instructors to focus on what the campus experience does best. However, it is not in my view the main reason for online learning.

I was arguing for more analysis to be made of what the campus can offer that cannot be provided more conveniently or more effectively online, with the implication that much of what we currently do on campus would actually be better replaced by online learning. What I would challenge in particular is that discussion is best done face-to-face. My experience is that very high levels of academic discussion are equally possible online as in class.

This brings me back to my law of equal substitution, which basically states that almost all teaching and learning outcomes can be just as effectively accomplished on campus or online, given good course design, although there will always be exceptions. In general, though, what determines the appropriateness of either mode are non-pedagogical factors, such as comparative costs, the differing needs of different types of students, the training of instructors, and the resources available.

I certainly believe that for young students straight out of high school, the social, sporting and cultural aspects of a campus are very important. Again, though, I question whether there is sufficient focus on these aspects today, especially in commuter universities, where a majority of the students travel in for lectures then go home. If the campus experience is so important for learning, then universities such as UBC need to really change the first and second year experience, with a move away from very large, impersonal lectures to more small group learning and more direct contact with senior research faculty. In other words, the current model, which keeps classes small for post-graduate students and large for first and second year undergraduates, should be inverted.

UBC is attempting to break up the large lecture classes, but the the cost of doing this, and the willingness or otherwise of faculty to spend more time with undergraduate students, are real challenges. It may be more realistic to focus on related academic and cultural activities that lie outside of formal courses or programs, and on those things, such as hands-on access to equipment, that cannot be done online.

Horses for courses (or rather, different courses for different horses)

The other point that really needs to be made is that public institutions such as UBC now face a much more diverse student population, with very different needs. Thus UBC has both young residential and young commuting students, local, national and international students, pre-university, undergraduate, graduate and lifelong learners, students with different levels of English language ability, gregarious and shy learners, and on and on. Every one of these groups probably needs a different range of options regarding the campus experience and the delivery of learning.

Thus I would argue that UBC also needs to focus just as much on fully online learning, or distance education, as on blended learning, or on improving the campus, as important as that is. In particular the lifelong learning market is growing rapidly, and is increasingly important economically in a highly competitive knowledge-based economy. Furthermore, lifelong learners are able and willing to pay the direct costs of for instance professional masters programs or more specific short courses or modules leading to badges or certificates. Such lifelong learners have already been through the campus experience, already have the fundamental lab or studio skills from hands-on learning, and can therefore handle more indirect forms of teaching, such as simulations or remote labs. It is for such learners that online learning is particularly appropriate.

Yes, much more flexibility

Thus UBC is absolutely right to focus on providing learning flexibly, i.e. in a wide variety of ways, to meet the diverse needs of students. In the end, students should be able to choose from a variety of ways of studying, while meeting the same teaching and learning objectives. This will require various mixes of online and classroom teaching within the same course or program. The technology to some extent does allow this ‘personalized’ learning, but it also needs to be accompanied by a major re-thinking of course design and how students can access learning, within a realistic cost framework.

Doing it right

Lastly, I have to say that in my view, UBC is way ahead of most universities in considering the impact of technology, not just on the campus, but on the whole learning experience and in particular the likely impact of changing markets on the university. I admire the way it is addressing these challenges. Thus my one day at UBC after an eleven year absence was a particularly appropriate way to conclude my career as a consultant.

Time to retire from online learning?

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Working in my study

Working in my study

Forgive me for being personal in this post (well, it is a blog), but I also have a few important things to say professionally.

The context

I was 75 yesterday and as I’ve tried to do each birthday for the last 25 years, I spent the day skiing at Whistler. (A wonderful day: sunshine and still tons of snow, and a lot of terrain to cover). How to spend yesterday was an easy decision. The hard one is how to spend the rest of my life (yeah, welcome to the club).

In particular, I have decided to stop (nearly) all professional activities from now onwards. I want to go through the reasons for this, because the reasons are as much professional as personal. Also this change has implications for my blog in particular.

What I’m not going to do

In general, I’m not going to accept any invitations to do paid consultancy work nor to accept invitations to be a keynote speaker or a participant at conferences from now on. I will not be taking on any more thesis supervision or examinations, nor reviewing articles or books for publication, unless they are directly relevant to my own writing (see below). I say in general, because it’s stupid to be inflexible, but there will not be many exceptions.

Why stop now?

First, if 75 is good enough for judges in Canada to retire, it’s sure good enough for me, and after 45 years continuously working in online and distance education, I’ve certainly earned the right to stop. However, many people just don’t believe me (including my wife), because online learning and open and distance education are my passion and my life, and that’s not going to go away. As the day spent skiing illustrates, I’m really fortunate to be healthy and fit, so health is not the reason. But there are good reasons for me to stop now, and I want to share these with you.

The main reason for stopping now is that I want to stop when I am still at my best. I’ve been really on form over the last 12 months, as far as one can be objective about these things. But I have seen far too many great people who continued long after they should have stopped – and unfortunately it’s the later years that people often remember. Much of my expertise comes from having done things: teaching online, managing a department. But it’s over 10 years since I taught a full course, and a similar amount of time since I was responsible for a department. Given the pace of change, it is dangerous for a consultant to become adrift from the reality of teaching and management. It’s time to hang up my boots before I get really hurt (or more importantly, really hurt others).

Related to this is the difficulty in keeping up in this area of knowledge. It’s a full-time job just to keep abreast of new developments in online and distance learning, and this constant change is not going to go away. It’s tempting to say that it’s only the technology that changes; the important things – teaching and learning – don’t change much, but I don’t believe that to be true, either. Teaching in higher education is about to go through as major a revolution as one can imagine. This is not going to be easy; indeed it could get brutal.

Even the processes of learning, which used to be relatively stable, given how much is biological, are also undergoing change. Technology is not neutral; it does change the way we think and behave. Furthermore, I foresee major developments in the science of learning that will have major implications for teaching and learning – but it will also have major false directions and mistakes (be very careful with artificial intelligence in particular). So this is a field that needs full-time, professional application, and very hard work, and I just don’t have the energy any more to work at that level. To put it simply, this is not a profession where you can be half in and half out. Dabbling in online learning is very dangerous (politicians please note).

And then there’s MOOCs. I can’t express adequately just how pissed off I am about MOOCs – not the concept, but all the hubris and nonsense that’s been talked and written about them. At a personal level, it was as if 45 years of work was for nothing. All the research and study I and many others had done on what makes for successful learning online were totally ignored, with truly disastrous consequences in terms of effective learning for the vast majority of participants who took MOOCs from the Ivy League universities. Having ignored online learning for nearly 20 years, Stanford, MIT and Harvard had to re-invent online learning in their own image to maintain their perceived superiority in all things higher educational. And the media fell for it, hook, line and sinker. This is a battle I no longer want to fight – but it needs fighting. But my reaction did make me wonder, am I just an old man resisting the future? And that has definitely left a mark.

Lastly, I am concerned that the computer scientists seem to be taking over online education. Ivy League MOOCs are being driven mainly by computer scientists, not educators. Politicians are looking to computer science to automate learning in order to save money. Computer scientists have much to offer, but they need more humility and a greater willingness to work with other professionals, such as psychologists and teachers, who understand better how learning operates. This is a battle that has always existed in educational technology, but it’s one I fear the educators are losing. The result could be disastrous, but that’s a theme for a whole set of blog posts.

So yes, time to go, and to leave the good fight to the next generation.

What I will continue to do

I will continue to write. In particular, I have already started writing an open textbook on ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’, and when that is done, I will write a semi-autobiographical novel (only the names will be changed to protect the innocent). I will also complete any existing professional commitments.

I will also continue this blog focused on online learning, but it will be more journalistic and less based on my immediate and recent experiences in online learning. So I hope it will continue to be of interest and value.

And yes, plenty of golf, and more time with family.

Last words

This post has ended up being a bit too personal. But it’s been an incredible, wonderful 45 years. Open and distance education are honourable fields of endeavour, aimed at widening access. Online learning is an exciting field, constantly under development, and has huge potential for both increasing the quality of teaching and the productivity of higher education. Above all, though, the journey has brought me many marvellous and true friends and colleagues. It has been an honour and a privilege to work with such great people. Thank you all.

Why successful consortia for online learning are so difficult

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The five steps of online system collaboration © Rachel Fishman, 2013

The five steps of online system collaboration © Rachel Fishman, 2013

Fishman, R. (2013) State U Online Washington DC: The New America Foundation

Fishman, R. (2014) Seeking Your Input on Online Consortia and Online Community Colleges WCET Frontiers

It would seem obvious that there would be great advantage in building consortia for online courses, so that courses could be shared between institutions, thus saving institutions the cost of developing new courses that are already being offered by other institutions. In particular, when you have a single state system of universities and two year colleges, it seems even more obvious. This is basically the idea behind the new Ontario Online initiative, for universities (Ontario already has a collaborative system, OntarioLearn, a partnership of 24 Ontario community colleges that have pooled their resources to increase online learning options.)

However, credit-based online courses have been around for many years, and yet there are very few successful consortia (Open Universities Australia is one good example.) The University of Florida System is a more recent example, as is the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.

Rachel Fishman’s report, State U Online, was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and tracks the development of online university consortia in the USA. She  identifies five steps that a state can take to build an integrated state-wide online system, and provides case studies of systems and institutions that have reached each ‘level.’

  1. Clearinghouse: State institutions collaborate to provide a clearinghouse of courses and degrees that a student can easily search. However, students must apply to each institution individually, and credit transfer between institutions is not automatic. Contact North provides such a portal in Ontario.
  2. Shared contracts: State institutions join together to purchase shared contracts for resources like a common LMS or services such as web conferencing or professional development around online learning. BCcampus operates something similar in British Columbia.
  3. Shared student services: state systems provide a variety of student support services at all (participating) institutions within the system, such as advising, local study centres, or even more common, proctored examination centres.
  4. Shared and articulated credentials: state systems have created carefully articulated efforts that include easy transfer of credit among institutions and shared credentialing. (This would include OntarioLearn)
  5. Shared credentials beyond state borders:  Several state systems create collaborative inter-institutional and inter-state efforts that take all of the previous steps, and allow students to move freely beyond state borders. Great Plains IDEA is an example from the USA, and Open Universities Australia is another example.

Fishman argues in the report that ‘public institutions should strongly consider adopting a system wide or consortia approach, in a manner that fits their unique contexts‘ and makes seven recommendations that will help strengthen such consortia.

However, in her blog post for WCET Frontiers, where she is asking for input for a new study on consortia in two-year colleges, she acknowledges that ‘[these five] categories may not be as distinct or as linear as I have made them out to be. And for some states, there are many barriers already in place that prevent institutions from even being able to come together and collaborate in the first place.’

Comments

The State U Online report should be compulsory reading for politicians and policy makers interested in course sharing and creating consortia.

However, what the report does not adequately address are the economics of online learning. Course sharing is not just about delivery of content, but also about providing learner support. If an institution takes a course from another institution, who will provide that ongoing learner support and assessment? It is the learner support that costs money (at least twice the cost of course development), and it is in the details of who will do the teaching of the online course – and how that gets paid for – where consortia so often break down. Having a strong and robust business model that adequately ensures the costs of all partners are adequately covered, and any surplus revenues are appropriately shared, is essential for successful consortia, but these conditions are very difficult to meet.

Another major barrier is academic distrust of other institutions: ‘Our courses are always good; yours are garbage.’ Also, for obvious reasons, faculty often feel uncomfortable teaching a course designed by someone else, and into the design of which they had no input.

For consortia to work, there has to be a synergy and a mutual respect for the other partners in the consortium. In a large system it is unrealistic to expect automatic transfer of credits between every institution in the system, although some states, such as California and Florida, have gone a long way to building equivalencies between courses in different institutions that facilitate formal credit transfer arrangements, through subject discipline articulation committees. But that is very hard work, takes many years to build, and requires a common vision and mutual respect. That is very hard to achieve in systems that put so much emphasis on competition and rankings.

So yes, consortia are desirable, but it ain’t easy. In the meantime, if you know of any successful online consortia let Rachel Fishman know (and me, too!)

A new MOOC on how to do blended learning

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UCF BlendKit

Kelly, R. (2014) EDUCAUSE and UCF launching blended learning MOOC Campus Technology, 3 April

EDUCAUSE and the University of Central Florida are offering a free MOOC called ‘BlendKit2014 – Becoming a Blended Learning Designer‘, which will run initially from April 21 to May 27.

It is aimed primarily at faculty and instructional designers, will come away with best practices for developing design documents, content pages and peer review feedback tools. In particular it will offer:

  1.  a consideration of key issues related to blended learning and
  2. practical step-by-step guidance in producing materials for a blended course (e.g., developing design documents, creating content pages, and receiving peer review feedback at one’s own institution).

The course was developed and will be taught by two staff members from the UCF Center for Distributed Learning: associate director Kelvin Thompson and department head Linda Futch.

Participants may also choose to pursue an official “UCF/EDUCAUSE Certified Blended Learning Designer” credential. Those who choose this more rigorous option will submit the materials they develop as part of the free MOOC for a portfolio review. This portfolio review is available for a  US$89 fee.

Registration for BlendKit 2014 is open on Canvas Network for the class that begins April 21. Details can be found at www.canvas.net and on Twitter at #BlendKit2014.

It should be noted that UCF has a great deal of experience in this field, having offered blended and fully online courses for many years.

 

 

Contact North on Online Learning, Innovation, Flexibility and Open Educational Resources

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Contact North's humble office in Sudbury, Ontario

Contact North’s humble office in Sudbury, Ontario

Contact North continues to produce a range of interesting short pieces on different aspects of online learning. (Disclaimer: I am a Contact North research associate, and have contributed a few times.)

The April 9 edition of Contact North’s Online Learning News contains three such contributions (all these pieces are generally anonymously written):

The What, Why, Where, and How of Open Educational Resources (OER)

Dr. Rory McGreal, Contact North | Contact Nord Research Associate and the UNESCO/Commonwealth of Learning Chair in Open Educational Resources answers these fundamental questions in a series of 10 short, informative videos, Open Educational Resources (OER) – A Video Primer.

There are two available at the moment, with others coming:

  1. What are open educational resources?
  2. Comparing commercial and open educational resources.

How to Design an Innovative Course

This piece suggests some steps that can help faculty and instructors approach the issue of innovative teaching in a systematic way, including

  • being clear on the problem you are trying to solve
  • working in a team
  • applying technology appropriately to address the problem to be solved
  • evaluating and disseminating your innovation

Greater Flexibility as the New Mantra

I have recently visited a Canadian university developing a major strategy around flexible learning, and this short piece (by someone else) suggests a wide range of ways in which institutions can increase their flexibility, including:

  • course design and delivery options
  • learning recognition and credit granting
  • program completion
  • assessment
  • transition from apprenticeship through diploma to degrees to graduate work .

These and many more items can be found on Contact North’s ‘Ontario Online Learning Portal for Faculty and Instructors’, available both in English and French.

Click here if you wish to subscribe to Contact North’s newsletter.