March 1, 2017

What counts when you cost online learning?

Poulin, R. and Straut, T. (2017) Distance Education Price and Cost Report Boulder CO: WCET

This highly controversial report has generated considerable discussion in WCET’s own Forum, and has received a good deal of media coverage. When you read the report you will see why.

Much of the media coverage has focused on the finding that respondents to the survey on which this report is based were by and large of the opinion that distance education costs more than classroom teaching. But you need to read the report more carefully to understand why respondents responded in this way. It all comes down to how you cost distance education or online learning. In particular, you need to understand the context of the report. 

As always, you should read the report itself, not my summary, especially if you disagree with what’s in my summary.

The context

The context for this report is very political and very American (by which I mean USAnian, i.e. applying specifically to the USA). The report is more about price – what institutions charge students – than it is about cost.

The cost of tuition (the fees students or their parents pay to the institution) continues to increase in the USA way beyond the rate of inflation, and many institutions not only charge the same tuition rates for online or distance education courses, but also add additional fees. In other words, many American institutions increase the price for an online or distance course compared to its face-to-face equivalent.

However, the political perception, especially in state legislatures, is that distance education is cheaper than on-campus teaching, so some states (e.g. Wisconsin and Florida) have introduced legislation or initiatives to reduce the price of online learning courses below that of face-to-face programs.

As the authors note:

Historically, distance education’s mission has been to overcome the barriers of place or time. The mission was not to control costs. In fact, to reach some locations is costly. Distance education should not be held accountable to a mission it was never given.

distance education professionals are caught in a higher education economics ethos that shuns open examination of price and cost…and are expected to answer to a “controlling cost” mission that was not given them in the first place.

It is within this context that WCET decided to do the study in order to challenge some of the assumptions about the price and cost of distance education.

Methodology

As always, you need to know the methodology in order to interpret the results. The report indeed is very transparent about its methodology, which is not tucked away in an appendix or not discussed at all (which seems to be a practice that is increasing in many so-called ‘studies’ these days), but is front and centre in the report.

Definitions

The authors provide the following definition:

  • Price – This is the amount of money that is charged to a student for instruction. The components are tuition and fees. In the questions, we will be clear as to which “price” component (tuition, fees, or total price) is being queried. 
  • Cost – This is the amount of money that is spent by the institution to create, offer, and support instruction. 
  • Distance Education – When thinking of “distance education,” we favor the Babson Survey Research Group definition of 80% or more of the course being taught at a distance.

Sample

WCET surveyed mainly its own members and members of other distance education consortia. Overall, 197 responded.

We had hoped for more participation in the survey. It is important to note that the responses provided represent only the institutional representatives who answered the survey questions. Even though we provide comparisons between the responding population and the overall higher education population, we do not assert that the results may be generalized to the universe of all institutions of higher education in the U.S. and Canada that offer distance education courses.

What can be said is that the response came mainly from distance education and educational technology professionals, rather than faculty or senior administrators, mainly in public HE institutions.

Main results

I will deal with these very briefly, although the detailed findings are more nuanced.

  1. The price of DE is generally higher than for face-to-face teaching. More than half (54%) of the respondents reported that their institution charged more for distance education courses than for on-campus courses.
  2. A majority of respondents believed that the cost of DE was higher than for face-to-face teaching on certain defined components (e.g. faculty development, technologies, instructional design, assessments, state authorization – a long and complex process of ‘accrediting’ DE courses unique to the USA).
  3. ‘Experts’ in the costs of DE tended to disagree that costs of DE are necessarily higher
  4. The experts also noted that cost discussions are often avoided by higher education leadership and that more could be done to control costs, not just in distance education.

The reports main conclusions

The conclusions were split into recommendations for legislators and institutions:

For legislators

  • focus questions on future costs and in particular the likely impact of investing in buildings vs distance education in terms of the impact of the cost to students
  • provide more incentives for institutions to reduce the price to students
  • don’t be prescriptive but help institutions develop a vision for state higher education that is realistic and shared

For institutions

  • pay as much attention to the cost to students as to the cost to the institution of various delivery methods
  • be more open about costs and track them for all modes of delivery
  • changing the cost structure requires structural changes in how we design and deliver programs; this requires leadership from the senior administration.

My comments on the report

The report is right to draw attention to the creeping costs to students (e.g. price) resulting from institutional policies in the USA. What is also apparent is that there is a large disconnect between institutions and government about the cost of distance education. Many educators believe that DE is more expensive; government thinks it should be cheaper. Somewhere in the middle is a discussion about quality: does cheaper mean worse?

Cherry-picking costs

Unfortunately, though, for methodological reasons, I fear the report has confused rather than clarified the discussion about costs and price. In particular, by focusing on components that are specific to distance education, such as faculty support, the use of technologies, and the cost of state authorization of DE, the report has clearly given the impression that most educators believe that distance education is more expensive. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.

It is unfortunate that the report has given this impression because you cannot just look at the costs of specific components of distance education without looking also at specific components of face-to-face teaching that are not represented in the costs of distance education, in particular the very substantial ‘sunk’ costs of buildings, parking, etc. There are better ways of measuring the costs of distance education and online programs – see Chapter 7 in Bates and Sangra (2011).

Making DE cost-effective

While we can develop cost-effective fully online programs, this normally depends on generating new revenues from new students. Offering online courses as an alternative to already existing students on campus, while increasing access and student flexibility, is much more financially risky.

Again, this can be managed cost-effectively, but it depends on having enough students taking both on-campus and online versions of the course, and the use of additional adjunct professors for online courses with more than 30 students. Bringing in new students who you wouldn’t get without the courses being online is the best bet to ensure economic viability. ‘Diluting’ your on-campus students by offering the same course online will add costs unless the numbers can justify it.

What about the costs of blended learning?

One last point. I think we are going to have a period of considerable cost turmoil as we move to blended learning, because this really does add costs unless there are dramatic redesigns, especially of the large first and second year classes. Carol Twigg of the National Centre for Academic Transformation for many years has been able to bring down costs – or more often increase effectiveness for the same cost – for these large lecture classes by using blended learning designs (although there are some criticisms of her costing methodology).

By and large though, while fully online courses can maybe increase enrolments by 10-15% and therefore help pay their way, we will have major cost or academic time problems if we move to nearly all courses being blended, without increased training for faculty, so they can manage without the same level of support provided by instructional designers, etc. that are normally provided for fully online courses (see ‘Are we ready for blended learning?‘).

Moving forward 

I’m glad then that WCET has produced a report that focuses not only on the costs of distance education to institution but also on pricing policies. There is in my view no economic justification for charging more for an online course than a face-to-face course as a matter of principle. You need to do the sums and institutions are very bad at doing this in a way that tracks the cost of activities rather than throwing everything into one bucket then leaking it out at historical rates to different departments.

Institutions need to develop more rigorous methods for tracking the costs of different modes of delivery while also building in a measure of the benefits as well. If the report at least moves institutions towards this, it will have been well worth it.

A report on university distance education in Québec

Rue Sainte Angèle, Ville de Québec

Conseil supérieur de l’éducation (2015) La formation à distance dans les universités québécoises: un potential à optimiser Québec: Gouvernement du Québec

This report is now nearly 18 months old, but I did not know about it until I was given a copy when I was in Québec last week. The report is in French and there is no English version, and it contains such a lot of good information that I want to make it more widely available to anglophones.

(There is supposed to be an English version of the summary, but I was unable to locate it on their web site. In any case, the most useful information is available only in the full report in French. Si on peut lire français, on devrait lire le rapport lui-même.)

The report

The Higher Council of Education in Québec is an autonomous body, separate from the Ministry of Education and Higher Education with a mandate to advise the Minister on all matters relating to education. It can choose the topics and the themes of the reports it produces on the state and needs of education. It has 22 members chosen from the field of education and beyond.

This report examines the issues for the Québec university system arising from the growth of new methods of teaching and learning, and provides some guidelines for the medium and long term. The decision to focus on distance education was influenced particularly by the growth of non-traditional methods of study by Québec students, the growth of part-time studying, and the increased application of new technologies for teaching.

The report covers the following aspects of distance education in Québec universities:

  1. The growth of new modes of education
  2. What’s happening in Québec
  3. A quick look at what’s happening outside Québec
  4. The Council’s guiding principles and recommendations
  5. Conclusions

Pay attention to the methodology

For me, Chapter 2 (What’s happening in Québec) was the most interesting chapter, because it provides extensive and relatively reliable data about student enrolments in distance education courses and programs in Québec universities.

It is really important to understand the definitions and terminology in the data about distance education enrolments used in the report. The report itself reports on the difficulty of finding reliable data, partly because distance education comes in many forms and partly because the whole field is very dynamic and fast-changing. The report then focuses on trends over time.

Asynchronous vs synchronous courses

The report makes the distinction between asynchronous courses where students can access the courses at any time and place (e.g. courses using learning management systems), with synchronous courses (primarily using web- or video-conferencing). This distinction is made by the Ministry purely for financial reasons to identify how many teaching spaces are required in an institution.

The data used in the report refers only to enrolments in asynchronous courses. However, the report also acknowledges that the modes of distance education are rapidly evolving. There is an interesting description for instance of how L’Université Laval has moved over time from TV and print-based courses to collaborative learning to ‘virtual synchronous’ classes, the latter being driven as much by instructors in face-to-face teaching as by distance education courses.

Student enrolments vs course enrolments

In most of the tables or graphs provided in the report, the unit of measurement is a student taking at least one asynchronous distance education course. Such students may then be enrolled in just one distance course or several, but they are only counted once. These tables are derived by data collected by the Ministry.

However, there is at least one graph that is derived from data provided by CLIFAD, a liaison committee of some of the major distance education institutions in the province, that refers to all distance education course enrolments, from three specific institutions. In this case it is the course enrolments that are counted, not the students.

However, so long as the unit of measurement is the same, either can be used to track trends over time.

Time period

Most of the data refers to enrolments in the fall term of 2012, so it is already four years out of date, and four years is a long time in this area. However, data is provided  in some of the tables for a period of over 12 years, and in the case of the CLIFAD data, over a period of 18 years, allowing clear trends to be identified.

Measuring distance education in Québec

Despite the issues around measurement, the report presents some clear facts about distance education in Québec:

  • steady growth in distance education students and enrolments at a higher rate than enrolments in general; for instance the overall number of students in universities grew by 27%, whereas the number of distance students grew by 38%
  • the proportion of students enrolled in (asynchronous) distance education courses grew from 6% in 2001 to nearly 12% by 2012
  • Laval has the highest number of students enrolled in distance courses (13,000), or 30% of all its students; TELUQ (a fully distance university) and Concordia (25% of all students) both have just under 10,000 distance education students; Sherbrooke, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR), Université du Québec à Rimouski, and University du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (UQAT) have around 1,000 distance students but in the case of UQAT this is more than a third of its students;
  • MOOCs (CLOMs in French) are fairly popular in Québec, being offered by HEC Montréal, McGill, TELUQ, Laval and UQTR.

Guiding principles and recommendations

The report identifies three guiding principles and makes 13 recommendations.

Guiding principles

  1. Accessibility to university study. The Council recognizes the importance of distance education in increasing accessibility to higher education in Québec, especially given its size and scattered population. The Council wants to optimise this potential, but to do this Internet services must be improved throughout the province.
  2. The quality of distance learning in Québec universities. The Council recognizes that distance education courses can be of high or low quality: it is the pedagogical approach and the design that matters.
  3. The economic viability of the Québec university system. The Council has a concern about the long-term financial viability of its higher education system, and recognizes that distance education can make a contribution towards the long-term sustainability of the system through:
    • sharing of resources;
    • collaboration between institutions on course design and delivery;
    • widening access to students in Québec through programs offered from beyond the immediate locality of students in Québec;
    • helping with the recruitment of students from outside Québec.

Recommendations

The Council makes 13 recommendations which are difficult to summarize but include the following:

  • universities need to clarify for students the differences between different modes of education, and in particular how MOOCs differ from other forms of distance education;
  • universities need to pay attention to the specific requirements of developing and delivering distance education, and should address issues such as support and training for faculty, recognizing that different categories of staff are needed, and safeguarding the intellectual property rights of faculty;
  • universities need to take into account the requirements of different modes of delivery when evaluating courses;
  • universities should ensure that students have adequate access to the technologies and human support they need for studying at a distance;
  • the Ministry should fund research on the impact of distance education on accessibility, quality and the viability of the system, and take into consideration the technology needs of universities when budgeting;
  • greater sharing of resources between the universities;
  • the Ministry, together with the universities, should reconsider the regulations regarding the admission and financing of students from outside Québec who take courses at a distance from Québec universities.

Comment

This is a thoughtful and well-researched report that provides a good picture of the state of distance education in Québec, and has a good discussion of many of the issues, even if the recommendations are a little insipid. (I don’t disagree with any of the recommendations but I don’t see them leading to any major changes). The report will go some way to increasing the legitimacy of distance education, if that is needed in the Québec higher education system.

On a more mundane technical level, the report shows how difficult it is to use existing data collected by government to measure the state of distance education or online learning in Canada. Where data has been collected it is often for another purpose, such as deciding how much to fund physical facilities, or is inaccessible to those wishing to do research. Definitions of distance, online and blended learning also vary. In particular the growth of synchronous online learning seems to be largely ignored or at least under-measured.

These are all challenges we are facing in developing our national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary education, but the Québec report if anything has reinforced my belief in the importance of having a systematic survey that is conducted nationally with definitions and measurements that are consistent across the country, even – or especially – if the provision of online learning and distance education varies a great deal.

The Old Town, Québec: it’s lovely in the summer!

 

A Spanish version of ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ is now available

I am very pleased to announced that La Enseñanza en la Era Digital, a complete, open, online Spanish version of ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’, translated and adapted by the Centre for Distance Education, la Facultad de Ingeniería, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina, is now downloadable from the BCcampus open textbook web site. 

I am extremely grateful to Ema Aveleyra, Andrea Vega and the team at el Centro de Educación a Distancia for their commitment, expertise and hard work in translating this work into Spanish and for making it publicly available.

This version joins the English, French, Vietnamese and Chinese versions of the book available from the BCcampus web site. There is also a Portuguese version printed by the Brazilian Association of Distance Education, but the online version has still to be made available. There are also translations in Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew and Farsi under way. 

The English version of the book (also available from Contact North as well as BCcampus) has been downloaded almost 50,000 times to date since its publication in April, 2015.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel for Athabasca University?

Light at end of tunnel

Climenhaga, D. (2017) Athabasca U’s future seems brighter as Saskatchewan prof named to conduct sustainability review Albertapolitics.ca, January 19

Climenhaga, D. (2016) Alberta Government names five new members to Athabasca University Board of Governors,Albertapolitics.ca, October 

The good news

I’ve written several times before about the troubles at Athabasca University, which bills itself as Canada’s open university (for a full list of my posts on AU and its troubles, see the end of this post). Most of my posts have been bleak about AU’s future because the news coming out of Alberta about the university was so bad.

So I am very happy to be able at last to see light at the end of the tunnel. This is due to several events in the last six months:

  • the appointment of a new President with extensive experience in the management of Albertan post-secondary educational institutions (Neil Fassina, formerly provost and vice-president academic at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology)
  • gradual renewal of the board with new appointments, and a targeted date (March 2018) for further new appointments to the board
  • the appointment of Dr. Ken Coates as ‘the independent third-party reviewer who will try to figure out how the perpetually broke AU can be made sustainable’.

In particular the changes to the Board and a new President were essential first steps to secure the future of the university. The NDP government, despite the financial crisis in Alberta due to low oil prices, seems to recognise that Athabasca University is funded per student at a much lower rate than the other universities, and will probably need more operational funding in the future. At the press conference to announce Professor Coates’ appointment, the Minister of Advanced Education stated that the government:

is committed to ensure adequate funds are in place to run the institution throughout Dr. Coates’s sustainability review. We’ve made sure the money is there to keep the lights on, people working and students learning.

This commitment is important as there are 30,000 students’ futures at stake.

So here is some gratuitous but well meaning advice for the Alberta government and Professor Coates from someone who cares a great deal about the future of the university, and knows a little bit about open and distance education.

Vision first

This is the most important, and actually the most difficult, challenge for Ken Coates and the government. What is the future role for AU in a world that has radically changed since its foundation almost 50 years ago? What added value can open and distance learning provide in the Alberta post-secondary education system? What needs can or does AU serve that are not being served by the other institutions? To answer those questions the university needs to look outward, not inward.

In earlier posts I have suggested what some of those roles could be:

  • widening access, particularly for lifelong learners, aboriginal students, and other potential learners denied access to the conventional post-secondary education
  • innovation in teaching: AU should be a world leader in the design of flexible, cost-effective online learning, a laboratory and test-bed for the rest of the Alberta post-secondary system
  • regional development and research: this is where it should focus its content and programs. Alberta is in the midst of dramatic changes to energy and resource development, climate change, and economic development. Find a niche here that has been left by the other universities and fill that.

However, it is really not for me to suggest a vision from AU. This needs to be created within and for Alberta. But the vision should drive everything else. To get buy-in and support for such a vision, an extensive process of consultation both internally and externally will be needed. This should have been done years ago so it needs to be done not only carefully but quickly.

In particular, all other decisions – about funding, labour contracts, course development – should be dependent on the vision, first and foremost. If there is general buy-in to the vision from all the stakeholder groups, these other thorny issues become much easier to deal with.

The teaching model

Athabasca University was a revolutionary 45 years ago when it introduced its teaching model of open access, continuous enrolment and independent, guided study based on quality printed materials. But that was the late 60s and early 70s. It’s 2017 now and the current teaching model is not only antiquated by modern standards, it is very costly and inflexible. Tightly linked to this is a generation of faculty and administrators who have known nothing else.

There has in fact been considerable internal expertise on the design of online and distance learning at AU, but this expertise has been constantly ignored in terms of actual decision-making about design models, or rather interesting designs have been pushed to the margins and haven’t affected the bulk of the teaching, particularly in the undergraduate programs.

This has to change. Slimmer, more flexible and above all less costly methods of course design and development are needed that take account of the rapid developments in new learning technologies since the 1970s.

I can’t see how this change in teaching models can happen without a major change in personnel, particularly in the academic and administrative areas, and without accompanying changes in labour agreements. AU’s location in the boondocks does not help in recruiting quality academic staff, although online learning means that faculty do not have to be physically located even in Alberta.  

Again, though, decide on appropriate teaching models, then develop labour agreements around this that are fair and reasonable. This will be helped if faculty and administrators buy into the new vision for teaching and learning. Those that don’t should leave. The students deserve better teaching than they are getting at the moment.

System synergy

AU’s role vis-a-vis the other post-secondary institutions in the province needs to be clarified, developed and agreed by not only the other institutions but also the government. In other words, a process such as Ontario’s strategic mandate agreements is needed.

Alberta though has a much smaller system than Ontario’s. It should be possible to get all the universities around a rather small coffee table. British Columbia back in the days of the Open Learning Agency had a Provost’s Council that worked out not only the relationship between OLA and the other universities, but agreed on joint program development, sharing of courses, and credit transfer for open and distance learning. Alberta needs something similar, some kind of forum that enables institutions to agree roles and functions in open and online learning. But again Athabasca needs to work out its vision and role first.

Funding

Although this has been the main focus in recent years to me it is the least of the problems. Even in a cash-strapped province such as Alberta’s, AUs funding is almost in the margin of error in the total provincial budget. But rightly the government doesn’t want to throw good money after bad.

The biggest need is a new approach to IT at the university. AU has had major problems with IT security, and IT management. Whatever vision for the university is decided, it needs to move away from a massive, centralised, local IT operation to more flexible, decentralised, cloud-based solutions. Again though the IT model needs to be driven by the vision for the university, not the other way round.

Will they get it right?

There is still a long way to go before Athabasca gets to the end of the tunnel, and there are several major factors that could still derail it. Indeed, let’s hope that the light isn’t another train that runs right over the university.

My biggest concern is that although the recent steps by the government are all in the right direction (new board, new president and an external review), where is the open and distance education expertise so urgently needed to guide Athabasca into the future? The government, the board, the CEO and even the external consultant have no experience in this field. In what other business other than open and distance education would this be acceptable?

It could be argued that the expertise lies within the institution. If so, over the last ten years there has been a lamentable inability to make good use of this expertise in the planning and management of the university. (See my previous posts below for evidence of this). Indeed, the top people in online and distance education field who were at AU have either retired, moved on or given up trying. Ken Coates needs to tap into this expertise and particularly their knowledge of the barriers that have stifled innovation in teaching and learning at AU.

Also when appointing a new board, the government should make sure that at least one board member is knowledgeable and experienced in open and distance education. Surely that’s not too much to ask?

So I wish Ken Coates the very best in his very challenging mission. But don’t call on me – I’m retired.

Further reading

I am surprised how much space I have devoted in this blog to the troubles at AU. Put them all together, though, and you get a pretty good picture of the challenges it has been facing:

Feb 25, 2013: What’s going on at Athabasca University? (about the firing of four senior staff)

Feb 27, 2013: Athabasca University’s President to stand down – but not soon

Jan 28, 2014: Is Athabasca University moving away from tutoring?

Jun 9, 2015: Athabasca University’s Troubles Grow (about a different sustainability report written by the previous interim President)

Jun 12, 2015: Advice to the Alberta Government on Athabasca University’s sustainability report 

Jun 14, 2015: Advice to students about Athabasca University

Jun 30, 2015: What can past history tell us about the ‘crisis’ at Athabasca University?

 

Learning analytics and learning design at the UK Open University

Maxim Jean-Louis (President, Contact North) and myself outside Walton Hall, the headquarters of the UK Open University, in 2012. It was my first visit since I left the OU in 1989.

Maxim Jean-Louis (President, Contact North) and myself outside Walton Hall, the headquarters of the UK Open University, in 2012. It was my first visit since I left the OU in 1989.

The Open University (2016) Developing learning design and analytics for student success, Connections, Vol. 21, No. 3

The latest edition of the Commonwealth of Learning’s magazine, Connections, has an interesting if brief article of the effective use of learning analytics. There are four key points that I noted:

  • the OU has scaled up its predictive use of learning analytics to cover over 45,000 students, and it works as well in traditional universities as in the OU
  • learning analytics is used in connection with learning design to identify not only students at risk but also to improve the design of the learning materials:

    the OU for the first time can empirically analyse the design of its modules. By linking learning designs with student satisfaction and success measures, it became possible to systematically identify, measure and improve critical aspects of students’ learning experience.

  • the OU is the first university in the world to develop and adopt a policy relating to the ethical uses of student data for
    learning analytics, involving students themselves in the development of the policy. This makes the adoption and use of learning analytics much easier
  • the OU has appointed a reader in learning analytics, Dr. Bart Rienties: that is treating learning analytics really seriously.

Unfortunately there were no links or ways to follow up the article.