May 1, 2016

A national survey of university online and distance learning in Canada

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February 22, 2016 – The Honourable Chrystia Freeland, Minister of International Trade, today welcomes Canada’s new education brand, "EduCanada’. The new EduCanada logo will appear on branded materials produced by the Government of Canada, provincial and territorial governments and by institutions active in the international sphere, such as Canadian universities, colleges, CEGEPs

February 22, 2016 – The Honourable Chrystia Freeland, Minister of International Trade, today welcomes Canada’s new education brand, “EduCanada”. The new EduCanada logo will appear on branded materials produced by the Government of Canada, provincial and territorial governments and by institutions active in the international sphere, such as Canadian universities, colleges, CEGEPs

Martel, C. (2015) Online and distance education capacity of Canadian universities Montreal QC: EduConsillium

At last we have a national survey of online learning in Canadian universities. This study was carried out on behalf of Global Affairs Canada by EduConsillium, a Montreal-based consultancy that specializes in the strategic deployment of education and training and events management.

Purpose of the study

The goal of this research is to investigate Canada’s use of and capacity in digital and online education, but since it was commissioned by Global Affairs Canada, its focus is primarily on the potential of online and distance learning for attracting international students. Nevertheless this report provides the most extensive data-based analysis to date of online and distance learning in Canadian universities.

I will provide an extensive summary and analysis of this report, but as always, you are recommended to read the full report, which can be accessed (for free) by writing to education@international.gc.ca.

Methodology

The consultants approached 93 universities. (There are 99 members of Universities Canada, but some are theological colleges attached to a larger university) and there were 73 responses for a 78% response rate.

Although the response rate is high, there are some significant omissions (for example, the University of Waterloo and the University of Saskatchewan, which have significant online programs, and the Universities of Alberta, Calgary and Mount Royal in Alberta, which have few or no distance programs). In particular, data for Alberta in the report are significantly skewed by Athabasca University, which is the main distance education provider in Alberta. There are no full universities in the three territories. For these reasons analysis by province/territories is not always reliable in the EduConsillium report.

The report never defines online learning or distance education. The terms seem to be used synonymously. In particular no distinction is made between blended, hybrid and fully online learning, but the assumption appears to be that the responses were for fully online courses.

It would have been preferable to have segmented the data between fully distance and dual-mode institutions, but this was not done.

Lastly, the method of counting online students leaves much to be desired. This is discussed in more detail in the comment section.

Results

Programs and courses

Of the 73 institutions responding, 68 (93%) offer online and distance courses. However, this may range from one to several hundred courses, and of course, some institutions will not have responded to the survey because they did not offer online or distance courses.

The survey identified a total of 12,728 online courses, of which 68% were undergraduate, and a total of 8% of all courses offered by Canadian universities.

The survey also identified a total of 809 online programs (72% of which are undergraduate).

However, the proportion of undergraduate online courses and programs is inflated by the large distance teaching universities, Athabasca, Royal Roads and TELUQ. The proportion of graduate online courses is likely then to be much higher for dual-mode institutions. Alberta, British Columbia, Newfoundland and Saskatchewan have the highest number of online courses.

Students

The report identified 360,000 students (29% of all Canadian university students) registered in online courses. Again, this figure needs careful interpretation as it does not indicate how many online courses students were taking.

The report does not give actual online enrolments by province, but the average number of online students per institution within each province, which again is highly misleading because of the effect of the large distance teaching universities in British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec. Averages are also not very helpful when institutions can vary from under 10,000 to over 60,000 students. Provinces with large universities will by definition have higher averages than for those provinces with mainly small institutions.

Over a third of those that responded to the survey provided no data on international students taking online courses. Of the two-thirds that did respond, 10% of the online enrolments were international students.

Policies and Strategies

The survey asked institutions what strategic purpose online learning served. No copy of the questionnaire is provided with the report, but it appears that a multiple choice question was offered with space for comment, so respondents were limited to the choices provided. However, in response to this question:

  • 68% of the institutions answered: to increase registration without adding infrastructure costs
  • 75% to widen the institution’s traditional catchment area
  • 5% to attract international students

However, it should be noted that many institutions offer individual online courses that can be taken instead of on-campus courses, so the main purpose of such courses is to provide more flexibility for learners. This option though was not apparently available for respondents.

In terms of how online learning is developed and delivered:

  • 61% of all surveyed institutions have a dedicated group responsible for development standards
  • 91% use an LMS
  • 21% use external contractors to develop online programs
  • 67% charge the same fees for online as for campus courses, while 22% charge more.

There is a section in the report on instructional strategies used for online learning, but again it appears to have been a multiple choice question, and the categories provided made little sense to me. One difficulty is that within an institution, there can be a wide variety of approaches to instructional design (even when there is a central unit responsible for development). This is not an area of enquiry that lends itself to multiple choice, single answer questions.

Main conclusions of the report

There is a very brief section setting out conclusions, mainly focused on the potential of online learning for attracting international students, which reflects the interest of the report’s sponsor.

The report recognizes that online learning is moving from a fringe to a mainstream activity and that there is potential for growth in the international market. It notes that Canada’s rate of expansion of online learning (roughly 8.75% per annum) is about the average for all countries worldwide. At one point it laments the slow growth in Canada, comparing it to growth rates of 30% or more in other countries such as Vietnam, Romania, India and China, and that Canada ‘cannot be considered a leader in this field as more than 20 countries invest about twice as much in their accredited online learning.’ However, no source is given for this statement, and without providing a base against which growth can be compared, it is pretty meaningless. For instance Canada has been offering online learning since 1995, while Romania is a relative newcomer. Canada therefore is a more mature market with less scope for growth, compared with Romania.

Finally the report notes that as there is no federal system of higher education in Canada, Canadian universities might need to go through some form of aggregating organization to provide a more visible international presence.

My comments

First, kudos to Global Affairs Canada for commissioning this study. It is the first national survey of Canadian online learning since, well when?

Methodological issues

However, I wish it had been a better study than it has turned out to be. There appear to be (I say ‘appear’ because I haven’t seen the actual questionnaire that was used) some serious methodological issues, not uncommon in attempts to measure online learning. In particular it is really important to distinguish between:

  • students as individuals
  • student/course enrolments
  • student FTEs (full-time equivalents).

It appears that the unit of measurement for students in this report is students as individuals. This means that it doesn’t matter how many online courses a student may take, it is counted as one student. Hence the figure of 360,000 individual students taking at least one online course.

However, a more accurate measurement of online learning activity would be the total number of enrolments in online courses. Thus if a student takes three online courses, that would be 3 student/course enrolments. This would measure better, for instance, the take-up of online courses, if the same students continue to add online courses to their workload.

But if we wish to compare online enrolments to ‘regular’ or campus-based enrolments, we need to look at the number of student FTEs taking online courses. This is more complicated since courses can vary in terms of the number of credits they count for, but to keep it simple, let’s assume that students need to take 10 three credit courses a year, then one student/course enrolment is one tenth of an FTE. Thus 360,000 student/course enrolments would be the equivalent of 36,000 FTEs. So either FTEs or student/course enrolments give a better picture than individual students of the impact of online learning.

One way to check the reliability or accuracy of the EduConsillium report would be by comparing it with similar studies. The problem is that there are very few similar studies, but one it should be compared with is the study conducted by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities in 2011. This was an actual census of all its universities (and colleges). The key figures from this report for the academic year 2009/2010 are as follows:

  • At the undergraduate university level, total [online] registrations amounted to 343,434 or 13% at 19 institutions which reported.
  • At the graduate university level, total [online] registrations amounted to 10,097 or 7% of total registration of 136,800 at 11 institutions which reported data
  • At the university undergraduate level, 21 institutions reported that 4,743 courses were available in an [online] format or 7% of a total of 64,590 courses.
  • In addition, at the graduate level (university only), 13 institutions reported 505 [online] courses which represented 3% of total reported graduate courses of 16,859 at these institutions.

This gives a total of 353,531 student/course registrations, or 12.68% of all course registrations, equivalent to approximately 35,350 FTEs. There was a total of 5,248 online courses, or 6.44% of all courses.

Unfortunately the EduConsillium report does not provide raw data, but provides the average number of online students per Ontario institution at 6,908.26, or 29% of all students. There are 21 responding Ontario institutions in the survey, which makes for a total of 145,073 students taking online courses. This would require those students recorded as taking an online course to take almost three online courses each on average to match the figures from the Ontario government.

There are similar problems comparing online courses in Ontario. The EduConsillium report gives only the average number of courses per institution, which again makes it difficult to calculate the actual total number of courses, but assuming the number of Ontario institutions in the EduConsillium survey to be 21, this would give a total of 2,589 online courses in 2015, compared with the Ontario government’s figure of 5,248 for 2010.

It should also be remembered that since 2009/2010, Ontario has rapidly increased its investment in online course development, so today there will be even more student/course registrations, and considerably more online courses. However, it is not possible to do a direct comparison between the Ontario and the EduConsillium data on online student enrolments or on online courses, which is a pity. Nevertheless it does suggest that the EduConsillium figures are considerably below those of the Ontario government.

This difficulty in validating the data is a direct result of the failure of EduConsillium to take into account what little research had previously been done on online learning in Canada. The EduConsillium report states:

It is difficult to estimate where the Canadian offering stands, as there has been no systematic review or analysis covering the Canadian offering. There are a few anecdotal studies about the online ventures of some Canadian post-secondary education institutions, but no real research looking into the general Canadian offering in online/distance education and the potential strategies used by Canadian institutions. This could become an issue as institutions focus on the lucrative international student market.

However, if it had first examined the Ontario government survey results, or looked at Contact North’s report (Jean-Louis, 2015), which estimated a total of 1.3 million online course enrolments (including one and two year colleges), or my book, Managing Technology in Higher Education, which did examine online learning strategies in three Canadian post-secondary institutions, or some of the articles in journals such as IRRODL that describe online learning strategies in Canadian institutions, and taken all this into consideration before designing its study, I would have had more confidence in the EduConsillium report.

Better than nothing?

Nevertheless, it is what it is. The report is probably better than nothing. It could provide a base against which further studies could be compared. However, I would not bet even my old socks on its accuracy. We need to be able to track accurately the growth and development of online learning in Canada. To do this, we need something more equivalent to the U.S. Department of Education’s IPEDS annual survey or the Babson Reports that provide consistent year-on-year analysis of online enrolments and courses in Canadian universities. This is really a job for StatsCanada to do, in consultation with universities and colleges.

The potential of online learning for international students

With regard to the bigger picture, I agree with the consultants that Canadian online courses and programs have great potential for international students. When UBC launched its online Master in Educational Technology in 2003, over 30% of the students were international. However, that program when it began was deliberately designed to appeal to both domestic and international students. It is not enough to take existing courses and hope they will automatically meet the needs of students in other countries.

Also, too many international offices in Canadian universities fear that online learning will eat into the more lucrative market of on-campus international students. Again, this is a mistake. They are two very different markets. Online learning will appeal to those who cannot afford the time or money to move to another country. It will appeal to older and possibly even younger students overseas than on-campus programs. But universities need a strategy that focuses on an international online market and makes sure that the content, technology and teaching approach is appropriate for learners in very different cultural and economic circumstances than on campus students, whether domestic or international. To do this, though, universities will need to develop a strong business plan – but it will be worth it.

References

Bates, A. and Sangrà, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass

Jean-Louis, M. (2015) An Overview of Online Learning in Canada Thunder Bay ON: Contact North

Ontario (2011) Fact Sheet Summary of Ontario eLearning Surveys of Publicly Assisted PSE Institutions Toronto: Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities

Technology and alienation: online learning and labour market needs

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Messi's penalty 'assist': originality has no limits; competency does

Messi’s penalty ‘assist’: originality has no limits; competency does (click on image to see video)

Introduction

This is the third in a series of posts on technology, alienation and online learning, and the first one that deals directly with online learning. The two previous posts were:

In this post I want to discuss the rhetoric and reality around labour market skills, and whether approaches such as competency-based learning may do more harm than good in the long run.

In these posts, it is important to understand that I am not attacking the use of online learning in general. There are many advantages to online learning. What I am questioning in these posts is some of the thinking and in particular some of the hype that surrounds what are otherwise valuable contributions to education. In particular, I want to be clear about the risks that are often ignored in the discourse about online learning, and about how to minimize these risks. If we don’t deal with these risks, then online learning could be yet another contribution to alienation.

Labour market needs and competency-based learning

Probably of all the developments in online learning at the moment, competency-based learning is the hottest. The U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan (2011), praised giving college credit for competency-based learning. President Barack Obama has also spoken in favour of competency-based programs in his proposals to reform higher education (White House Office of the Press Secretary 2013). The U.S. Department of Education is actively encouraging colleges and universities to offer competency-based programs (Field 2013). Many universities, particularly in the USA, are moving in this direction.

Competency-based learning identifies 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 a full degree. A feature of most competency-based programs is a partnership between employers and educators in identifying the competencies required, and assessment based on clear learning outcomes.

There are several benefits in the competency-based learning approach:

  • it meets the immediate needs of businesses and professions;
  • students may receive advancement within a company associated with the program, 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 them to take the assessment when ready;
  • students get individual support and help from their mentors;
  • tuition fees are affordable and programs can be self-funding from tuition fees alone;
  • competency-based education is being recognized as eligible for Federal loans and student aid in the USA.

For more on competency-based learning, see Chapter 4.5, Teaching in a Digital Age

Drivers of change

There are several key reasons for the growth in competency-based learning:

  • the high direct cost of post-secondary education, especially in the USA; competency-based learning is generally much cheaper
  • it meets the immediate job needs of both employers and students
  • it is much more flexible, particularly for working students, than conventional full-time campus-based education.

The main value proposition and who benefits

  • employers get workers with exactly the knowledge and skills that they need
  • students have more immediate success in finding jobs
  • it lowers the cost of post-secondary education (government and parents)

Risks and danger

The risks are more long-term than short-term. In the short term, competency-based learning is more likely to meet the immediate needs of employers, and students looking for immediate employment or better jobs. However, by definition, competency-based learning is focused not only on the immediate needs as defined by employers, but also on providing just the amount of education needed to meet immediate needs.

This leaves employees educated primarily through competency-based learning vulnerable to major shifts in the labour market. They may end up trained for jobs that no longer exist, and even worse, without the skills or knowledge to adapt to the changing market. Meanwhile, those students who have received a broader education, focused on more general, high level skills, will then have a long term market advantage. In such conditions, those with qualifications through competency-based learning could end up in the lower paid jobs or without work, a prime condition for alienation.

More fundamentally, the concept of competency is limiting. Competency-based learning requires setting learning outcomes that can be accurately measured according to pre-determined standards. Indeed, ‘mastery’, i.e. 95% or more in terms of measuring a competency, is often required. This is different from a skill. A skill has no limit. One continues to improve with learning and experience. This is true particularly of intellectual skills, such as critical thinking, originality, and decision-making, but also applies to even psycho-motor skills. Athletes such as Roger Federer and Lionel Messi never stop practicing, learning and developing. They only stop through the aging process, as their body becomes less strong or over-stressed. Thus measuring a skill that theoretically has no limit is not easy since it may well exceed pre-determined criteria.

What many learners will need in a volatile, uncertain,complex and ambiguous labour market are skills of entrepreneurship, adaptability and resourcefulness. Such skills require a different curriculum and different teaching methods from that of competency-based learning.

Conclusion

I am not arguing against the use of competency-based learning. For certain market conditions and for certain learners, this will be an improvement on traditional post-secondary or higher education. People need jobs now; who knows what the future will bring. Competency-based learning is a particularly valuable teaching method for those already in or recently removed from employment.

However, it will not meet all needs. Indeed, most learners will need, at least initially, an approach to education that allows for greater flexibility and range in the knowledge and skills they need to develop. In particular we should be teaching in such a way that enables learners to continue to learn, to deepen their knowledge, to improve continuously their skills. This should be  an education for all learners, not just for an elite few who go to Ivy League universities. Such an approach to education is necessary for all who want a secure and prosperous future. If we limit learners to just competency-based education, we are setting them up for alienation down the road. So we should think of competency-based learning as a supplement to rather than a replacement for a broader education.

Next

Personalized and adaptive learning.

References

Duncan, A. (2011) ‘Beyond the Iron Triangle: Containing the Cost of College and Student Debt.” Remarks of US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the annual Federal Student Aid conference, Las Vegas, November 29 http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/beyond-iron-triangle-containing-cost- college-and-student-debt.

Field, K. (2013) ‘Student Aid Can Be Awarded for Competencies, Not Just Credit Hours, U.S. Says.’ Chronicle of Higher Education, March 19 http://chronicle.com/article/Student-Aid-Can-Be-Awarded -for/137991

United States of America (2013) Fact sheet on the President’s Plan to Make College More Affordable: A Better Bargain for the Middle Class Washington DC: White House Office of the Press Secretary, August 22 http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/08/22/fact-sheet-president-s-plan-make-college-more-affordable-better-bargain-.

Technology and alienation: symptoms, causes and a framework for discussion

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Edvard Munch's The Scream (public domain) Location: National Gallery, Norway

Edvard Munch’s The Scream (public domain)
Location: National Gallery, Norway

This is the second post on the topic of technology, alienation and the role of education, with a particular focus on the consequences for teaching and learning. The first post was a general introduction to the topic. This post focuses on how technology can lead to alienation, and provides a framework for discussing the possibility of technology alienation in online learning and how to deal with it.

What do I mean by ‘alienation’?

Alienation is a term that has been around for some time. Karl Marx described alienation as the perception by people that they are becoming increasingly unable to control the social forces that shape their lives. Ultimately, highly alienated workers come to lose the sense that they can control any aspect of their lives, whether at work or at home, and become highly self-estranged. Such people are profoundly discontent, prone to alcohol and drug abuse, mental illness, violence, and the support of extreme social and political movements (Macionis and Plummer, 2012). Although Marx had an industrial society in mind, the definition works equally well to describe some of the negative effects of a digital society, as we shall see.

Causes

There are of course many different but related causes of alienation today:

  • the increasing inequality in wealth and in particular the perception by unemployed or low paid workers that they are being ‘passed by’ or not included in the wealth-generating economy. The feeling is particularly strong among workers who previously had well paid jobs (or expectations of well paid jobs) in manufacturing but have seen those jobs disappear in their lifetime. However, there are now also growing numbers of well educated younger people struggling to find well paid work while at the same time carrying a large debt as a result of increasingly expensive higher education;
  • one reason for the loss of manufacturing jobs is the effect of globalization: jobs going abroad to countries where the cost of labour is lower;
  • dysfunctional political systems are another factor, where people feel that they have little or no control over decisions made by government, that government is controlled by those with power and money, and political power is used to protect the ‘elites’;
  • lastly, and the main consideration in these posts, the role of technology, which operates in a number of ways that create alienation:
    • the most immediate is its role in replacing workers, originally in manufacturing, but now increasingly in service or even professional areas of work, including education;
    • a more subtle but nevertheless very powerful way in which technology leads to alienation is in controlling what we do, and in particular removing choice or decision-making from individuals. I will give some examples later;
    • lastly, many people are feeling increasingly exploited by technology companies collecting personal data and using it for commercial purposes or even to deny services such as insurance; in particular, the benefits to the end-user of technology seem very small compared to the large profits made by the companies that provide the services.

Symptoms

Here are some examples of how technology leads to alienation.

There have been several cases where intimate images of people have been posted on the Internet, without permission, and yet it has been impossible for the victims to get the images removed, at least until well after the damage has been done. The Erin Andrews case is the most recent, and the suicide of the 15 year old Amanda Todd is another example. These are extreme cases, but illustrate the perception that we have less and less control over social media and its potentially negative impact on their lives.

Sometimes the alienation comes from decisions made by engineers that pre-empt or deny human decision-making. I have always driven BMWs. Even when I had little money, I would buy a second hand BMW, mainly because of its superb engineering. However, I am driven crazy by my latest purchase. The ignition switches off automatically when I stop the car and automatically switches on again when I take my foot off the brake. One day I drove into my garage. I had stopped the car, and turned round to get something off the back seat. I took my foot off the brake and the car lurched forward and hit the freezer we have in the garage. If I had been on the street and done that, I could well have hit another car or even a pedestrian. The car also automatically locks the passenger doors. I have parked the car and started to walk away only to see my passengers pounding on the window to get out. I could cite nearly a hundred instances from this one car of decisions made by engineers that I don’t want made for me. In most cases (but not all) these default conditions can be changed, but that requires going through a 600 page printed manual. Furthermore these ‘features’ all cost money to install, money I would rather not pay if I had a choice.

We are just starting to see similar decisions by engineers creeping into online learning. One of the most popular uses of data analytics is to identify students ‘at risk’ of non-completion. As with the features in a car, there are potential benefits in this. However, the danger is that decisions based on correlations of other students’ previous behaviour with course completion may end up denying access to a program for a student considered ‘at risk’ but who may nevertheless might well succeed. In particular it could negatively profile black students in the USA, aboriginal students in Canada, or students from low income families.

A framework for discussion

I am dealing here with a highly emotive issue, and one where there will be many different and often contradictory perspectives. Let’s start with the ‘moral’ or ‘value’ issues. I start from the position that alienation is to be avoided if at all possible. It leads to destructive forces. In education in particular, alienation is the opposite of engagement, and for me, engagement is critical for student success. On the other hand, if people are really suffering, then alienation may well be a necessary starting point on the road to change or revolution. So it is difficult to adopt an objective stance to this topic. I want therefore to focus the discussion around the following issues:

  • what are the main developments in online learning that are occurring or will occur over the next few years?
  • who are the main drivers of change in this area?
  • what is the main value proposition? Why is this area being promoted? Who stands to benefit most from this development?
  • what are the risks or what is the downside of these developments? In particular, what is the risk that such developments may actually increase alienation in learners?

I will look at each of the following developments in the next series of blog posts within this framework, developments in online learning that have great promise but at the same time could, if not carefully managed, end up increasing alienation:

  • competency-based learning;
  • personalised and adaptive learning;
  • learning analytics;
  • online assessment methods (badges, machine marking, e-proctoring, e-portfolios, etc.);
  • unbundling of educational services

I will then end this series of posts with a discussion of ‘defensive’ strategies for learners and educators to deal with the negative impact of technology in a digital age.

References

Macionis, J. and Plummer, K. (2012) Sociology: A Global Introduction Don Mills ON: Pearson Education

Technology, alienation and the role of education: an introduction

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One definition of alienation Image: Reuters

One definition of alienation
Image: Reuters

Is there a problem here?

I live a 30 minute drive from the U.S. border, and like many of my fellow Canadians (and many U.S. colleagues) I have been watching with a mixture of disgust and horror the Donald Trump presidential campaign gathering increasing momentum. However unlike most Canadians, I am not surprised at Trump’s growing success (nor is Canada immune – Rob Ford’s support also comes from the same origins). Trump derives his support from an ever expanding body of people who feel alienated and marginalized by technology, globalization and the growing gap between rich and poor.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the supporters of Bernie Sanders as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, and the anti-austerity movements in Europe, are also driven by increasing alienation due to perceived failures of the capitalist/’democratic’ system to meet the interests of ordinary people. Both sides see government as having been captured by special interest groups, especially but not exclusively financial establishments and the major media and Internet companies.

There is of course no single reason for this growing alienation, but the way technology, and particularly digital technology, has been moving recently is one major cause of this alienation. People feel they are losing control to forces they do not understand. In particular, there is a growing sense that the benefits of technology are going to an increasingly smaller and richer group of people. The public, the end users of technology, increasingly feel that they are being exploited for the benefit of those that control the technology. People are losing jobs and those that have jobs are working harder or longer to stand still.

Dealing with the problem (or challenge)

I plan to explore this issue further in several blog posts that focus particularly on the role of education, and how we deal with technology, both as a field of study, and with its use for teaching and learning. I will argue that educators have a special responsibility to prepare students better for this rapidly changing and increasingly threatening digital world, so students can try to wrest some control and make technology work better for them in the future. I will also be arguing that some potential developments in the use of technology in education could be more harmful than beneficial, and will further increase feelings of alienation, if we are not careful.

This is very much an exploratory journey on my part. I will outline a series of topics for discussion in different blog posts, but this may well change as we get into it. In particular, I am looking for discussion and interaction, an exchange of views, and different perspectives on what I see as an increasingly important topic. The focus will always be on the implications for teaching and learning.

Here is my initial breakdown of topics:

  • introduction (this post)
  • technology and alienation: symptoms, causes and a framework for discussion (next post)
  • skills development and the labour market: are we fighting the last war? (This will include a discussion of competency-based learning, and the difference between skills and competencies – or competences, if you are European), with the goal of better preparing learners for an increasingly hostile digital age;
  • automation vs empowerment in educational technology (already done; maybe some revisions)
  • unbundling of educational services: who benefits; alternative models; privatisation versus state funding; risk management
  • the myth of the autonomous learner: the changing relationship between teachers and learners; creating effective learning environments (partly done); how to personalise learning to the benefit of the learner
  • teaching ‘defensive’ skills: protecting privacy, avoiding monopolies, citizen engagement, understanding and controlling the technology
  • globalization and online learning: think/learn globally, act/do locally; ways to open the curriculum; building bridges with other cultures
  • wrap-up.

Help!

This is starting to look like a mini-course, maybe even a cMOOC, but my thinking is so unformed at this stage that I want to keep the topic and approach as open as possible, and in particular I want to clarify my own thoughts through the process of writing (yes, that does work sometimes). So:

  • do you believe that alienation is increasing/a serious problem, due to the way technology is being managed and controlled? Or am I being paranoid?
  • what topics would you add to this list? Is there anything essential in discussing the topic of technology-based alienation and the role of education that needs to be included that I have missed?
  • can education really make a difference? Can it help prevent alienation – or should it encourage it? Or are we already stitched up?
  • would you be interesting in contributing to this discussion; if so how? (e.g. guest posts; comments; suggested readings/videos)
  • are you thinking: ‘Don’t even go there, Tony – it’s a waste of time!’?

Building an effective learning environment

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Learning environment 2

I was asked by the Chang School of Continuing Studies at Ryerson University to do a master class on this topic at their ChangSchoolTalks on February 17, based on Appendix 1 in my open, online textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

I was a little surprised by the request. I had moved what had originally been the second chapter of the book to an appendix, as I thought it was rather obvious and most instructors would already be aware of the key factors in an effective learning environment, so I was somewhat nervous about doing a master class for faculty and instructors on this topic.

As it turned out, I need not have worried. The master class was the first to be fully booked and the way the master class developed suggested that participants found the topic both stimulating and challenging. I think the reason for this is that my approach to building an effective learning environment is driven by a particular philosophy of education that is not always understood in post-secondary education. For this reason I thought I would share with you my thoughts on this in this post.

Learning as a ‘natural’ human activity

One premise behind building an effective learning environment is that it is inbuilt in humans to learn. If we had not been reasonably good at learning, we would have been killed off early in the earth’s history by faster, bigger and more ferocious animals. The ability not only to learn, but to learn in abstract and conscious ways, is therefore part of human nature.

If that is the case, a teacher’s job is not to do the learning for the student, but to build a rich environment that facilitates the kind of learning that will benefit the learner. It is not a question of pouring knowledge into a student’s head, but enabling the learner to develop concepts, think critically, and apply and evaluate what they have learned, by providing opportunities and experiences that are relevant to such goals.

Learning as development

A second premise is that knowledge is not fixed or static, but is continually developing. Our concept of heat changes and becomes richer as we grow older and become more educated, from understanding heat through touch, to providing a quantitative way of measuring it, to understanding its physical properties, to being able to apply that knowledge to solving problems, such as designing refrigerators. In a knowledge-based society, knowledge is constantly developing and growing, and our understanding is always developing.

This is one reason why I believe that one negative aspect of competency-based education is its attempt to measure competencies in terms of ‘mastery’ and limiting them to competencies required by employers. The difference between a skill and a competency is that there is no limit to a skill. You can continually improve a skill. We should be enabling students to develop skills that will carry them through maybe multiple employers, and enable them to adapt to changing market requirements, for instance.

If then we want students to develop knowledge and skills, we need to provide the right kind of learning environments  that encourage and support such development. Although analogies have their limitations, I like to think of education as gardening, where the learners are the plants. Plants know how to grow; they just need the right environment, the right balance of sun and shadow, the right soil conditions, enough water, etc. Our job as teachers is to make sure we are providing learners with those elements that will allow them to grow and learn. (The analogy breaks down though if we think of learners as having consciousness and free will, which adds an important element to developing an effective learning environment.)

There are many possible effective learning environments

Teaching is incredibly context-specific so the learning environment must be suitable to the context. For this reason, every teacher or instructor needs to think about and build their own learning environment that is appropriate to the context in which they are working. Here are some examples of different learning environments:

  • a school or college campus
  • an online course
  • military training
  • friends, family and work
  • nature
  • personal, technology-based, learning environments
A personal learning environment Image: jason Hews, Flikr

A personal learning environment
Image: jason Hews, Flikr

Nevertheless I will argue that despite the differences in context, there are certain elements or components that will be found in most effective learning environments.

In developing an effective learning environment, there are two issues I need to address up front:

  • First, it is the learner who has to do the learning.
  • Second, any learning environment is much more than the technology used to support it.

With regard to the first, teachers cannot do the learning for the learner. All they can do is to create and manage an environment that enables and encourages learning. My focus then in terms of building an effective learning environment is on what the  teacher can do, because in the end that is all they can control. However, the focus of what the teacher does should be on the learner, and what the learner needs. That of course will require good communication between the learners and the teacher.

Second, many technology-based personal learning environments are bereft of some of the key components that make an effective learning environment. The technology may be necessary but it is not sufficient. I suggest below what some of those components are.

Key components

These will vary somewhat, depending on the context. I will give examples below, but it is important for every individual teacher to think about what components may be necessary within their own context and then on how best to ensure these components are effectively present and used. (There is a much fuller discussion of this in Appendix 1 of my book)

Learner characteristics

This is probably the most important of all the components: the learners themselves. Some of the key characteristics are listed below:

  • what are their goals and motivation to learn what I am teaching them?
  • in what contexts (home, campus, online) will they prefer to learn?
  • how diverse are they in terms of language, culture, and prior knowledge?
  • how digitally capable are they?

Given these characteristics, what are the implications for providing an effective learning environment for these specific learners?

Content

  • what content do students need to cover? What are the goals in covering this content?
  • what sources of content are necessary? Who should find, evaluate, and apply these sources: me or the students? If the learners, what do I need to provide to enable them to do this?
  • how should the content be structured? Who should do this structuring: me or the learners? If learners, what do I need to provide to help them?
  • what is the right balance between breadth and depth of content for the learners in this specific context?
  • what activities will learners need in order to acquire and manage this content?

Skills

  • what skills do students need to develop?
  • what activities will enable learners to develop and apply these skills? (e.g. thinking, doing, discussing)
  • what is the goal in skill development? Mastery? A minimal level of performance? How will learners know this?

Learner support

  • what counselling and/or mentoring will learners need to succeed?
  • how will learners get feedback (particularly on skills development)?
  • how will learners relate to other learners so they are mutually supporting?

Resources

  • how much time can I devote to each of the components of a learning environment? What’s the best way to split my time?
  • what help will I get from other teaching staff, e.g. teaching assistants, librarians? What is the best way to use them?
  • what facilities will the learners have available (e.g. learning spaces, online resources)?
  • what technology can the learners use; how should this be managed and organized?

Assessment

  • what types of assessment should be used? (formative, essays, e-portfolios, projects)?
  • how will these measure the content and skills that learners are expected to master?

These questions are meant mainly as examples. Each teacher needs to develop and think about what components will be necessary in their context and how best to provide those components.

For instance, I did not include culture as a component. In some contexts, cultural change is one of the most important goals of education. Negative examples of this might include the culture of privilege encouraged in private British boarding schools, or the attempt to replace indigenous cultures with a western culture, as practiced in Canada with aboriginal residential schools. More positive cultural components may be to encourage inclusivity or ethical behaviour. Again, each teacher should decide on what components are important for their learners.

Necessary but not sufficient

Thinking about and implementing these components may be necessary, but they are not sufficient in themselves to ensure quality teaching and learning. In addition effective teaching still needs:

  • good design
  • empathy for the learners
  • teacher competence (e.g. subject knowledge)
  • imagination to create an effective learning environment.

Conclusions

The learners must do the learning. We need to make sure that learners are able to work within an environment that helps them do this. In other words, our job as teachers is to create the conditions for success.

There are no right or wrong ways to build an effective learning environment. It needs to fit the context in which students will learn. However, before even beginning to design a course or program, we should be thinking of what this learning environment could look like.

Technology now enables us to build a wide variety of effective learning environments. But technology alone is not enough; it needs to include other components for learner success. This is not to say that self-managing learners cannot build their own effective, personal learning environments, but they need to consider the other components as well as the technology.

Questions

  1. What other components would you add to a successful learning environment?
  2. Could you now design a different and hopefully better learning environment for your courses or programs? If so, what would it look like?
  3. Is this a helpful way to approach the design of online learning or indeed any other form of learning?