October 2, 2014

‘The Economist’ on online learning

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© The Economist, 2014

© The Economist, 2014

Insight (2014) The democratisation of learning The Economist, September 26

This is a well-balanced and well-researched article on online learning in post-secondary education, even if it is very U.S.-focused. Doesn’t say anything new, but it covers the right ground.

What I liked is that it places MOOCs within the broader context of what is happening in online learning. A nice article to give to faculty skeptical about online learning (especially if they are economists).

Writing an open textbook: a mid-term report on the technology

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Open textbooks free 2

I’m about half-way through writing my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’ I’ve done about five and a half chapters, and I would like to share my views on the underlying technology that I am using, because, while it does the job reasonably well, we are clearly in the Version 1.0 stage of software development, from an author’s perspective. I believe there is a major opportunity to develop a software authoring framework that fully exploits the open characteristics of a textbook, but we are not there yet.

Background

I’m writing this book more or less on my own, although I do have some support from an instructional designer and I’m anticipating getting some help with marketing once the book is complete. I’m also getting a lot of useful feedback, because I am publishing as the book is being developed (the first five chapters are already available here) and also publishing excerpts in this blog.

My main technical support is coming from BCcampus, which is managing a large open textbook project on behalf of the British Columbia provincial government. My book is not directly related to the provincial government-funded project, which at this stage is focused primarily on converting existing print textbooks to open, online versions. However, as the project advances, more open textbooks will need to be written from scratch. (For more on the BCcampus open textbook project project, see here.)

BCcampus has taken an ‘off-the-shelf’ open source authoring software ‘shell’ called Pressbooks, which in itself is based on WordPress. BCcampus has made some further adaptations to Pressbooks for the open textbooks that BCcampus is helping to develop. I have used the BCcampus version of Pressbooks to create my own textbook. However, anyone can use Pressbooks for free, if they wish to write an openly published book.

What I am trying to do

My goals are two-fold:

  • to openly publish a textbook on teaching in a digital age, aimed at teachers, instructors and faculty.
  • to explore ways to incorporate best teaching practice and an open education philosophy within the design of the book.

This is a report on where I’ve got to so far in authoring the book, using the Pressbooks/BCcampus template, and in particular on what I’m finding regarding the potential and limitations of the software for authoring an open textbook.

What works

It is extremely easy to start authoring with Pressbooks. After you log in to the Pressbooks main page, you can easily set up an account which is password protected. Once you have an account, you will be assigned a url which will take you to your admin page, from where you can author your book.

Anyone who has used WordPress for blogging will have no difficulty whatsoever in getting started in Pressbooks. If you already have a structure for the book in your mind, and know what you want to write, you can be writing within less than ten minutes of signing up with Pressbooks. You can also open accounts for others, such as co-authors, an editor, or an instructional designer, with password-protected access to the editing part.

Pressbooks allows you to work in private or to publish each chapter or section when ready. You can ‘export’ , in several versions, such as ePub, pdf or html, for free downloading. BCcampus is also making available, at cost, printed versions of their textbooks. The ‘exported’ version looks clean and replicates almost exactly the edited version, with embedded urls, diagrams, headings and indentation. The variety of exported formats enables use of the textbooks on various mobile devices and tablets. If the recommended technological structure is followed when writing and editing, the reader can easily navigate through the book in a variety of ways.

Thus, for basic book writing and publishing, Pressbooks is easy to use, comprehensive in the devices it can be used on, and pleasant to read.

Challenges

From the perspective however of an open textbook, I found the following challenges:

Lack of interactivity

Those of you used to using a learning management system are likely to be frustrated by the lack in Pressbooks of common features found within an LMS, such as ways to provide feedback on exercises, places where readers/students can add their own contributions, or places where monitored and edited discussions can take place. Thus some of the key opportunities to make a book more interactive and open are currently not available, without going outside the Pressbooks environment. There are two reasons for this.

1. Pressbooks was originally designed for supporting fiction writers, and as such works perfectly for them (providing they can manage to write easily in WordPress). If you want a straight read through a book, it is perfect, but this is not what you necessarily want with an educational textbook.

2. BCcampus has added some useful features, such as widgets that allow you to insert text boxes for learning objectives, student exercises, and key take-aways, but has had to disable the comment feature because the textbooks are likely to be used by many instructors with different classes. BCcampus is rightly worried that it would be confusing and overwhelming for multiple instructors if students across all the classes shared the same comment boxes. However, as an author, I want to integrate both the activities and the student responses to the activities, and above all I want comments and feedback on what I’ve written.

There are in fact really several distinct stages or uses of an open textbook:

  • book creation (which I am going through now), where feedback is needed by the author. At this stage, the comment feature is really essential. Ideally, it should be at the end of each chapter and part.
  • response from individual readers once the book is completed. I’m already getting these, as I’m publishing as I go. At least in the early days, feedback is again essential, and it would be quite manageable for the author to monitor the comments at this stage. However, over time, adoption by instructors, accumulated spam, and repetitious comments may lead the author to want to disable this feature.
  • adoption as part of a course. At this stage the comment feature needs to be disabled (or cleared), and replaced probably by a course web site, wiki or discussion forum linked specifically to a particular instructor and their course.

What I’d really like is a widget where I can just drop in a comment box in the right place, and the ability as an author to open, clear or disable it, as well as monitoring and where necessary editing it. It could be switched to open or private.

I have also explored some possible open source discussion forums or wikis, and computer-based test services, but these would have to sit outside the textbook, and I haven’t found a satisfactory service yet (although I haven’t looked very hard – suggestions welcome.)

The technological structure of the book

Unlike many online books that you will find on Kindle or iPads, Pressbooks does not output in discrete pages. The way it manages the structure of the book to enable fluent navigation by the reader is not immediately transparent to an author writing a book.

The two key features are Parts and Chapters. I assumed (incorrectly) that Parts were sub-units or sections of Chapters. This suited me, as I’m expecting a diverse audience with a wide range of prior knowledge. I assumed that many would not want to read a whole chapter on say design models, but may have a particular interest in some of the models and not in others. However, I made the basic mistake of not reading the BCcampus Authors’ Manual carefully before starting (and when I did read it, I did not understand it.) What I hadn’t realised was that Chapters link to Parts and the Parts are not intended to have much, if any, content.

Parts are really an introduction to the substance, a kind of organiser for the actual following content, which take place in the Chapters. Think of a novel: Part 1: 1969, Chapter 1: Boy meets girl. However, I rushed off and wrote Parts like sections of a chapter then cut and pasted each Part into a Chapter. I got half-way through writing the book before realising this was a mistake, thanks to a very helpful recent meeting with staff from BCcampus.

So I have ended up using a Part like an advance organiser for a chapter, and the Chapter feature for each section of a ‘Part’. This works well now, the navigation is much better, and it avoids the reader having to scroll down through an 8,000 word chapter. Some ‘Chapters’ in Pressbooks terminology are only a couple of paragraphs long and I have renamed them sections, with the Part containing the Chapter name. I also use the Part to state the purpose of the Chapter, what is covered in the chapter, and the key takeaways.

However, as you can see, the Pressbooks terminology of Parts and Chapters is really misleading. Worse, I spent two whole days cutting and repasting content I had already written in order to get the content into the right technological structure required by the software.

No mark-up facility

Unlike Word, an editor or a co-author cannot mark up drafts in Pressbooks (or WordPress for that matter – if there is a plug-in for this, please let me know.) This makes co-production of a book and getting feedback much more frustrating, especially as there is no comment feature.

If you are writing a co-edited or co-authored book, this is a major limitation, and a better strategy might be to initially edit in Google Docs or Word, then transfer everything when finished into Pressbooks or another publishing software shell. Even then, this is not a good solution because of the high risk of losing material during the transfer – and in any case, when is an open textbook ever finished? It should be a work in continuous updating.

Even for a single author, though, the inability to mark up drafts in Pressbooks is a considerable nuisance, especially if the comment feature is disabled. Not only my instructional designer, but also several readers who are following the development of the book, are copying sections from the Pressbook version into Word, marking up suggested corrections in Word, sending me the Word document, which I then go through then make any necessary changes in the Pressbooks version.

What is needed of course is a mark-up plug-in for WordPress, which would have much wider value than just open textbook authoring.

Limitations of WordPress

Some of these limitations are also limitations of writing and editing in WordPress. The feature for creating tables is so difficult to use that it is essentially useless. Some of the formatting doesn’t transfer when cutting and pasting to another screen page (which I have to do often), such as text alignment. I spend an enormous amount of time scrolling up to the top of the page, looking for the toolbox menu, to add urls, italics, lists, or indents, sometimes accidentally transferring out of the editing page and thus losing some of the more recent writing. (Apparently, in the new version of WordPress 4, the scrolling issue to get to the toolbar will be resolved – the toolbar will stay at the top of the screen, however far down you scroll).

However, I am spending far too much time on editing and not enough on creative writing. Editing is always a time-consuming but necessary activity when writing, but I really could do without technology frustrations when editing.

Conclusions

Pressbooks is a workable solution for writing an open textbook, but it works best if you want just a simple read through by the reader, in the manner of a traditional textbook. If though you want to make it more interactive, and open to comment, criticisms and substantive contributions from other people, then the current Pressbooks software is very limiting.

Pressbooks is a classic case of taking a new medium and merely transferring the format and structure of a previously existing medium. Although this is probably an essential and useful first step, what is really required is a complete re-design that fully exploits the characteristics or affordances of the new medium. For this to happen, though, a partnership between software engineers, potential authors and instructional designers is needed. However, there is a great opportunity here for creating truly innovative open source software for supporting open textbooks, if anyone has the time and resources to do this.

Authors such as myself also need to work out the difference (if any) between an open textbook and a learning management system. There are real difficulties in making everything in a course open, mainly because of hacking, spam and other external nuisances that can seriously disrupt a serious, engaged educational experience. The same applies to blogs and open textbooks. If the comment feature is too open it becomes overwhelmed with hacking and spam (I’m clearing about 50 bot-generated messages a day from my blog comment box – I don’t want to also have to spend this time keeping the comments on an open textbook under control.)

However, even accepting that an open textbook is not a substitute for an LMS, authors need to think carefully how the textbook can best be integrated or adopted within a course. Sample activities, suggestions for model answers, etc., can all be included. Above all, though, authors need to be clear when writing as to what will be done within the technological limitations of the textbook, what is best done outside the textbook, and how best to integrate these two elements.

I have to say I haven’t worked this out yet. It’s still a work in progress.

Over to you

As you can see, I am somewhat bumbling my way through the technology side of the writing, learning mainly through experience, although BCcampus has been more than helpful. I’d really like to hear though from other open textbook authors: is your experience similar or very different and if so why? Have you used different authoring software and how did that go?

Also, on the technology side, I’m still very open to other technology solutions, so long as they can be seamlessly integrated with Pressbooks. I have gone too far now to move to another software solution. But any suggestions welcome.

The strengths and weaknesses of competency-based learning in a digital age

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Online student 2

Chapter 5 of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘, is now published. In Chapter 5, I developed the concept of a learning environment.

I am now working on Chapter 6, ‘Models for Designing Teaching and Learning.’ In my last two posts I discussed respectively the appropriateness of the classroom model and the ADDIE model for a digital age. In this post, I explore the same issue for competency-based learning model. (Some of this material has been published earlier by Contact North in its Gamechangers series.)

Competency-based learning

Competency-based learning attempts to break away from the regularly scheduled classroom model, where students study the same subject matter at the same speed in a cohort of fellow students.

What is competency-based learning?

Competency-based learning begins by identifying specific competencies or skills, and enables learners to develop mastery of each competency or skill at their own pace, usually working with a mentor. Learners can develop just the competencies or skills they feel they need (for which increasingly they may receive a ‘badge’ or some form of validated recognition), or can combine a whole set of competencies into a full qualification, such as a certificate, diploma or increasingly a full degree. Learners work individually, rather than in cohorts. If learners can demonstrate that they are already have mastery of a particular competency or skill, through a test or some form of prior learning assessment, they may be allowed to move to the next level of competency without having to repeat a prescribed course of study for the prior competency.

Its value for developing practical or vocational skills or competencies is more obvious, but increasingly competency-based learning is being used for education requiring more abstract or academic skills development, sometimes combined with other cohort-based courses or programs. The Western Governors University, with nearly 40,000 students, has pioneered competency-based learning, but with the more recent support of the Federal Department of Education it is expanding rapidly in the USA.

Competency-based learning is particularly appropriate for adult learners with life experience who may have developed competencies or skills without formal education or training, for those who started school or college and dropped out and wish to return to formal study, but want their earlier learning to be recognized, or for those learners wanting to develop specific skills but not wanting a full program of studies. Competency-based learning can be delivered through a campus program, but it is increasingly delivered fully online, because many students taking such programs are already working or seeking work.

Designing competency-based learning

There are various approaches, but the Western Governors model illustrates many of the key steps.

Defining competencies

A feature of most competency-based programs is a partnership between employers and educators in identifying the competencies required, at least at a high level. Some of the skills outlined in Chapter 1, such as problem-solving or critical thinking, may be considered high-level, but competency-based learning tries to break down abstract or vague goals into specific, measurable competencies.

For instance, at Western Governors University (WGU), for each degree, a high-level set of competencies is defined by the University Council, and then a working team of contracted subject matter experts takes the ten or so high level competencies for a particular qualification and breaks them down into about 30 more specific competencies, around which are built online courses to develop mastery of each competency. Competencies are based upon what graduates are supposed to know in the workplace and as professionals in a chosen career. Assessments are designed specifically to assess the mastery of each competency; thus students receive either a pass/no pass following assessment. A degree is awarded when all 30 specified competencies are successfully achieved.

Defining competencies that meet the needs of students and employers in ways that are progressive (i.e. one competency builds on earlier competencies and leads to more advanced competencies) and coherent (in that the sum of all the competencies produces a graduate with all the knowledge and skills required within a business or profession) is perhaps the most important and most difficult part of competency-based learning.

Course and program design

At WGU, courses are created by in-house subject matter experts selecting existing online curriculum from third parties and/or resources such as e-textbooks through contracts with publishers. Increasingly open educational resources are used. WGU does not use an LMS but a specially designed portal for each course. E-textbooks are offered to students without extra cost to the student, through contracts between WGU and the publishers. Courses are pre-determined for the student with no electives. Students are admitted on a monthly basis and work their way through each competency at their own pace.

Students who already possess competencies may accelerate through their program in two ways: transferring in credits from a previous associate degree in appropriate areas (e.g. general education, writing); or by taking exams when they feel they are ready.

Learner support

Again this varies from institution to institution. WGU currently employs approximately 750 faculty who act as mentors. There are two kinds of mentors: ‘student’ mentors and ‘course’ mentors. Student mentors, who have qualifications within the subject domain, usually at a masters level, are in at least bi-weekly telephone contact with their students, depending on the needs of the student in working through their courses, and are the main contact for students. A student mentor is responsible for roughly 85 students. Students start with a mentor from their first day and stay with their mentor until graduation. Student mentors assist students in determining and maintaining an appropriate pace of study and step in with help when students are struggling.

Course mentors are more highly qualified, usually with a doctorate, and provide extra support for students when needed. Course mentors will be available to between 200-400 students at a time, depending on the subject requirement.

Students may contact either student or course mentors at any time (unlimited access) and mentors are expected to deal with student calls within one business day. Student mentors are pro-active, calling students regularly (at least once every two weeks, more if necessary) to maintain contact. Mentors are full-time but work flexible hours, usually from home. Mentors are reasonably well paid, and receive extensive training in mentoring.

Remote proctoring of exams

Remote proctoring of exams

Assessment

WGU uses written papers, portfolios, projects, observed student performance and computer-marked assignments as appropriate, with detailed rubrics. Assessments are submitted online and if they require human evaluation, qualified graders (subject matter experts trained by WGU in assessment) are randomly assigned to mark work on a pass/fail basis. If students fail, the graders provide feedback on the areas where competency was not demonstrated. Students may resubmit if necessary.

Students will take both formative (pre-assessment) and summative (proctored) exams. WGU is increasingly using online proctoring, enabling students to take an exam at home under video supervision, using facial recognition technology to ensure that the registered student is taking the exam. In areas such as teaching and health, student performance or practice is  assessed in situ by professionals (teachers, nurses).

Strengths of a competency-based approach to design

Proponents have identified a number of strengths in the competency-based learning approach:

  • it meets the immediate needs of businesses and professions; students are either already working, and receive advancement within the company, or if unemployed, are more likely to be employed once qualified
  • it enables learners with work or family commitments to study at their own pace
  • for some students, it speeds up time to completion of a qualification by enabling prior learning to be recognized
  • students get individual support and help from their mentors
  • tuition fees are affordable ($6,000 per annum at WGU) and programs can be self-funding from tuition fees alone, since WGU uses already existing study materials and increasingly open educational resources
  • increasingly, competency-based education is being recognized as eligible for Federal loans and student aid in the USA.

Consequently, institutions such as WGU, the University of Southern New Hampshire, and Northern Arizona University, using a competency-based approach, at least as part of their operations, have seen annual enrolment growth in the range of 30-40 per cent per annum.

Weaknesses of a competency-based approach to design

Its main weakness is that it works well with some learning environments and less well with others. In particular:

  • it focuses on immediate employer needs and is less focused on preparing learners with the flexibility needed for a more uncertain future
  • it does not suit subject areas where it is difficult to prescribe specific competencies or where new skills and new knowledge need to be rapidly accommodated
  • it takes an objectivist approach to learning
  • it ignores the importance of social learning
  • it will not fit the preferred learning styles of many students.

In conclusion

Competency-based learning is a relatively new approach to learning design which is proving increasingly popular with employers and suits certain kinds of learners such as adult learners seeking to re-skill or searching for mid-level jobs requiring relatively easily identifiable skills. It does not suit though all kinds of learners and may be limited in developing the higher level, more abstract knowledge and skills requiring creativity, high-level problem-solving and decision-making and critical thinking.

Over to you

I have been very gratified by the feedback and open-ness of many of the readers of this blog on my earlier drafts for this book. I do not feel I am an expert on competency-based learning, never having designed a course this way, so feedback and advice from more experienced practitioners will be particularly welcome. In particular:

1. I have focused mainly on the Western Governors design model for competency-based learning, which is entirely online. Do you know other models of designing competency-based learning that I should have included?

2. What are your views on the competency-based model? Is it a useful model for designing teaching in a digital age? Do you agree with my criticisms of the model?

3. What is the difference between a competency and a skill? Or is there no difference?

4. What key articles, videos or books on competency-based learning would you recommend?

What’s next

So far I have done drafts of the following (as blogs)

  • What is a design model?
  • The classroom model
  • Classroom models in online learning
    • LMSs
    • lecture capture
  • ADDIE
  • competency-based learning

Still to come:

  • Connectivist models, including communities of practice and cMOOCs
  • PLEs
  • AI approaches
  • Flexible design models
  • Conclusion

My next post in this series then will be on the appropriateness of connectivist design models for teaching in a digital age.

What UBC has learned about doing MOOCs

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Coursera certificate 2

Engle, W. (2104) UBC MOOC Pilot: Design and Delivery Vancouver BC: University of British Columbia

The University of British Columbia, a premier public research university in Canada, successfully delivered five MOOCs in the spring and summer of 2013, using the Coursera platform. This report is an evaluation of the experience.

The report is particularly valuable because it provides details of course development and delivery, including media used and costs. Also UBC has been developing online courses for credit for almost 20 years, so it is interesting to see how this has impacted on the design of their MOOCs.

The MOOCs

1. Game Theory I: K. Leyton Brown (UBC); M. Jackson and Y.Shoham (Stanford University)

2. Game Theory II: K. Leyton Brown (UBC); M. Jackson and Y.Shoham (Stanford University)

3. Useful Genetics: R. Redfield, UBC

4. Climate Literacy: S. Harris and S. Burch, UBC

5. Introduction to Systematic Program Design: G. Kizcales, UBC

In terms of comparability I’m going to treat Game Theory I and II as one MOOC, as combined they were about the same length as the other MOOCs (between 8-12 weeks)

Basic statistics

330,150 signed up (82,500 on average per course)

164,935 logged in at least once (41,000 per course)

12,031 took final exam (3,000 per course)

8,174 earned course certificate (2,000 per course)

60-70% already had a post-secondary degree

30-40% were North American, with participants from nearly every country in the world.

Course development

None of the instructors had taught an online course before, but were supported by instructional designers, media development staff, and academic assistants (graduate and undergraduate students).

One major difference between UBC MOOCs and its online credit courses (which are primarily LMS-based) was the extensive use of video, the main component of the MOOC pilot courses.

Video production

305 videos constituting a total of 65 hours were produced. Each MOOC used a different method of production:

  • Intensive studio (Climate Literacy)
  • Hybrid studio plus instructor desktop (Systematic Program Design)
  • Light studio production (Game Theory I and II)
  • Instructor desktop (Useful Genetics)

Web pages

All the MOOCs except Games Theory also included weekly modules as HTML-based web pages, which is a variation of the Coursera design default model. Altogether 98 HTML module pages were developed. The weekly modules were used to provide guidance to students on learning goals, amount of work expected, an overview of activities, and additional quiz or assignment help. (All standard practice in UBC’s LMS-based credit courses.)

Assessment

1,049 quiz questions were developed, of which just over half were graded.

There were four peer assessments in total across all the MOOCs.

Course delivery

As well as the faculty member responsible for each MOOC, graduate and undergraduate academic assistants were a crucial component of all courses, with the following responsibilities:

  • directly assisting learners
  • troubleshooting technical problems
  • conducting quality assurance activities

There was very little one-on-one interaction between the main instructor and learners, but academic assistants monitored and moderated the online forum discussions.

Costs

As always, costing is a difficult exercise. Appendix B of the report gives a pilot total of $217,657, but this excludes academic assistance or, perhaps the most significant cost, instructor time.

Working from the video production costs ($95,350) and the proportion of costs (44%) devoted to video production in Figure 1 in the report, I estimate the direct cost at $216,700, or approximately $54,000 per MOOC, excluding faculty time and co-ordination support, but including academic assistance.

However, the range of cost is almost as important. The video production costs for Climate Literacy, which used intensive studio production, were more than six times the video production costs of Systematic Program Design (hybrid studio + desktop).

MOOCs as OERs

  • the UBC instructors are using their MOOC materials in their own on-campus, for-credit classes in a flipped classroom model
  • courses are left open and active on Coursera for self-paced learning
  • porting of video materials as open access YouTube videos
  • two courses (Climate Literacy and Useful Genetics) added Creative Commons licenses for re-use

Challenges

  • copyright clearance (Coursera owns the copyright so third party copyright needs to be cleared)
  • higher than expected time demands on all involved
  • iterative upgrades to the Coursera platform
  • partner relationship management (UBC + Coursera + Stanford University) was time-consuming.
  • training and managing academic assistants, especially time management
  • the Coursera platform limited instructors’ ability to develop desired course activities
  • Coursera’s peer assessment functionality in particular was limiting

Lessons

  • UBC’s prior experience in credit-based online learning led to better-designed, more interactive and more engaging MOOCs
  • learners always responded positively to instructor ‘presence’ in forums or course announcements
  • MOOC students were motivated by grades
  • MOOC students were willing to critically engage in critiquing instructors’ expertise and teaching
  • open publishing via MOOCs is a strong motivator for instructors
  • MOOCs require significant investment.

Conclusion

All the MOOCs received positive feedback and comments from students. UBC was able to gain direct experience in and knowledge of MOOCs and look at how this might inform both their for-credit on-campus and online teaching. UBC was also able to bring its experience in for-credit online learning to strengthening the design of MOOCs. Lastly it was able to make much more widely known the quality of UBC instructors and course materials.

Comment

First, congratulations to UBC for

  • experimenting with MOOCs
  • conducting the evaluation
  • making the report publicly available.

It is clear from the comments of participants in the appendices that at least some of the participants (we don’t know how many) were very pleased with the courses. As usual though with evaluation reports on MOOCs, there is no assessment of learning other than the end of course quiz-based tests. I don’t care too much about completion rates, but some measurement of student satisfaction would have been helpful.

It is also significant that UBC has now decided to move from Coursera to edX as its platform for MOOCs. edX, which is open source and allows partners to modify and adapt the platform, provides the flexibility that Coursera lacked, despite its many iterative ‘improvements’.

This also demonstrates the hubris of MOOC platform developers in ignoring best design principles in online learning when they designed their platforms. It is clear that UBC designers were able to improve the design of their MOOCs by drawing on prior for-credit online experience, but also that the MOOC platforms are still very limited in enabling the kind of learning activities that lead to student engagement and success.

The UBC report also highlighted the importance (and cost) of providing some form of learner support in course delivery. The use of academic assistants in particular clearly made the MOOCs more interactive and engaging, as well as limited but effective interventions from the instructors themselves, once again supported by (and confirming) prior research on the importance of instructor presence for successful for-credit online learning.

I very much appreciate the cost data provided by UBC, and the breakdown of production and delivery costs is extremely valuable, but I have to challenge the idea of providing any costs that exclude the time of the instructors. This is by far the largest and most important cost in MOOCs and the notion that MOOCs are free of instructor cost is to fly in the face of any respectable form of economics.

It is clear that MOOCs are more expensive to date per hour of study time than LMS-based for-credit online courses. We still do not have enough data to give a precise figure, and in any case, as the UBC study shows, cost is very much a factor of design. However, even without instructors costs, the UBC MOOCs at $54,000 each for between 8-12 weeks are already more than the average cost of a 13 week for-credit LMS-based online course, including instructor time.

This is partly due to the increased instructor time in preparation/production, but also to the higher cost of video production.  I am not against the use of video in principle, but it must add value. Using it for content transmission when this can be done so much more cheaply textually and/or by audio is a waste of the medium’s potential (although perhaps more motivating for the instructor).

More importantly, every institution contemplating MOOCs needs to do a cost-benefit exercise. Is it better to invest in MOOCs or credit-based online learning or both? If MOOCs are more expensive, what are the added benefits they provide and does this more than make up for not only the extra cost, but the lost opportunity of investing in (more) credit-based online learning or other forms of campus-based learning? I know what my answer would be.

 

Transforming university teaching and learning: UBC’s strategy for flexible learning

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UBC campus, Vancouver BC

UBC campus, Vancouver BC

Flexible Learning Implementation Team (2014) Flexible Learning – Charting a Strategic Vision for UBC (Vancouver Campus. Vancouver BC: Office of the Provost, University of British Columbia

The University of British Columbia is one of Canada’s premier research universities with almost 60,000 students. It usually features within the top 30 universities worldwide in university rankings.

For the last 18 months, UBC has been developing a comprehensive strategy for teaching and learning for the future, and last week issued a report on its vision and how it plans to implement that vision. Although Flexible Learning is the term UBC has chosen to describe this strategy, it is in fact far more comprehensive and wide ranging than just blended or fully online learning. It is really about the transformation of teaching and learning in response to local, regional and global changes and challenges, based on a substantial amount of prior research, internal discussion, and input from external consultants (declaration of interest: I played a very small part in some of the early discussions of strategy).

First, the breaking news, then a summary of the main points from the strategy document.

Breaking news

This really represents the first concrete actions resulting from this strategic initiative.

  1. Research report published on UBC’s first four MOOCs: These MOOCs were delivered through the Coursera platform. I will cover this report in a separate blog post.
  2. Moving from Coursera to edX: UBC has now joined edX as a Charter Member, giving it a seat on edX’s Academic Advisory Board. UBC will develop four new MOOCs for delivery on edX in 2014-2015.
  3. Revamping Continuing and Professional Education: UBC has established, within the Provost’s Office, a new unit to work in close partnership with Faculties in developing both applied and access programs. More on this and how it affects the current Division of Continuing Studies later in this post.
  4. Improving the learning technology ecosystem: basically a response to widespread faculty disenchantment with the implementation of the latest version of UBC’s LMS, Blackboard Connect.

However, these four developments are literally the tip of an iceberg, which is much larger and more significant.

The strategic vision

As always, I recommend a careful reading of the whole 22 page document, even though it is not the easiest of reads. Any summary diminishes the complexity of the discussion, because there are so many inter-related themes and developments to which the university is attempting to respond. I provide this summary though in the hope that it will spike your interest enough to make the effort, as I see this document as one of the most significant for the future of public higher education in Canada – and elsewhere.

What does the university mean by flexible learning?

From the document (p.2)

We define Flexible Learning as UBC’s response to the opportunities and challenges presented by rapid advances in information and communication technologies, informed by the results of learning research and motivated by the objectives of improving student learning, extending access to UBC and strengthening university operating effectiveness.

See below for more detail on what that actually means.

What’s driving the change?

  • learner and employer expectations: need for a flexible workforce, greater flexibility in delivery and offerings, and more emphasis on measurable outcomes
  • demographics: increased global demand, with the local population of students older and often working
  • policy of governments (generally): growing reliance on tuition revenue; a belief that online learning is cheaper
  • disruptive technologies: MOOCs, cloud, mobile, adaptive learning, automated assessment, learning analytics…..

Market segmentation

Different categories of learners:

  • traditional university students (65% of the market), younger, mainly ‘commuting’: want rich campus-based learning experiences
  • convenience-driven degree-seekers: older, working, want blended/online learning
  • practitioners: seeking credentials for professional development; able to pay; under-represented to date at UBC
  • growth learners: seeking non-credentialed learning; a large and growing market segment.

All segments want more flexibility, both in delivery and range of content offerings.

Main objectives (for flexible learning)

  1. improved student learning
  2. expanded access to UBC content
  3. greater operating effectiveness

Main strategies

1. Strengthening UBC’s traditional role: through:

  • blended learning (including integration of MOOC content)
  • improving the campus experience and more personalization of learning through more modular programming
  • strategic academic program transformation

2. Revenue growth: through:

  • strategic expansion of continuing/professional education, especially applied master’s programs, certificates, badges
  • expanding access through ‘bridging’, e.g. PLA, MOOCs, summer programs

3. Academic partnerships (joining edX is one example)

Governance and management

The UBC Board and Executive approved the outline plan in 2013. Two teams were established within the Provost’s Office:

  • a leadership team, responsible for developing vision, strategy and policies, chaired by the Provost, with eight members
  • an implementation team, with another eight members, chaired by a Vice Provost.

Support is also provided by staff from the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology and from the IT Division, as well as designated contact people within each Faculty.

UBC has committed a total of $5 million ($1 million already spent) to support this initiative. (The total UBC annual operating budget is over $1 billion).

Comment

I’m watching this as someone completely outside the university. UBC is a very large and complex organization, once described by one former Provost as being managed by 12 barons all plotting to become king (although the climate is very different today). I cannot judge how far the reality of what’s happening on the ground differs from the vision, and in any case it is still very early days.

However, it is important to stress that this is a university-wide initiative (at least for the main Vancouver campus – UBC also has a semi-autonomous and much smaller campus in the interior of the province.) The strategy seems to have widespread support at the senior executive level, and a lot of momentum resulting from an infusion of significant money but more importantly as a result of widespread discussion and consultation within the university. Certainly the blended learning component is already getting a lot of traction, with some major re-designs of large undergraduate classes already in progress. How all this affects though the main body of the faculty and students at the hard edge of teaching and learning is impossible for me to judge.

The establishment of a new ‘hub’ within the Provost’s office for continuing and professional education (CPE) is particularly interesting since UBC has long had a strong and extensive Division of Continuing Studies, which offers a wide range of non-credit programming. However,

  • the ability to re-purpose existing content from credit courses into certificates, badges and non-credentialed offerings such as MOOCs,
  • the growing market for professional masters programs, especially online,
  • the increasing reconfiguration of higher education as a continuous lifelong learning escalator rather than a series of different, discrete floors (bachelors, masters, doctorates, non-credit),
  • the opportunities for revenue generation flowing directly back to the faculties,

all make essential a rethinking of the whole CPE activities of a university.

At the same time, the Division of Continuing Studies at UBC, as elsewhere, has many staff with a range of special skills and knowledge, such as

  • marketing,
  • direct access to employers and industry (often through the hiring of working professionals as part-time instructors),
  • the ability to identify and take risks with emerging content areas,
  • experience in operating in a highly market-driven, competitive cost-recovery/profit environment.

These are not attributes currently within the capacity or even interest of most academic departments. It will be an interesting challenge to see how the knowledge and experience of the Division of Continuing Studies can best be integrated with the new initiative, and how the new development in the Provost’s Office affects the operation of the Division of Continuing Studies.

Another critical factor is the appointment of a new President, who has pledged support for the strategy. However, he also said on his inauguration that the university will increase its base funding for research by at least $100-million. He did not specify though where the money would come from. I leave you to compare that to the $5 million allocated to this initiative and to judge how much impact finding another $100 million base funding for research might have on teaching and learning at UBC. I know, it’s not a zero sum game, but….

Overall, though, I find it heartening that UBC is showing such leadership and initiative in grappling with the major forces now impacting on public universities. It has a vision and a plan for teaching and learning in the future, that looks at teaching, technology, students and the changing external environment in an integrated and thoughtful manner, which in itself is a major accomplishment. It will be fascinating to see how all this actually plays out over time.