July 1, 2015

Athabasca University’s troubles grow

Listen with webReader
Athabasca University: a campus without students - or even resident faculty

Athabasca University: a campus without students – or even resident faculty

Bako, O. (2015) AU taskforce releases sustainability report, The Athabasca Advocate, June 9

I hate to rely on third-party reports, but a thorough web search did not find the actual sustainability report online, so all I can do is provide a summary of the newspaper article. (How comes an open university doesn’t make this most important report ever on its future available online? This is just another indicator of the depth of the problems at AU. It doesn’t understand the present, never mind the future). If anyone can supply me with a copy of the actual report, I would appreciate it. So until I get a copy, please see this as an interim post.

What’s the problem?

However you look at it, though, Canada’s largest open university is in an existential crisis:

Athabasca University (AU) will be unable to pay its debt in two years if immediate action is not taken, according to a sustainability report released June 1….the taskforce concluded AU would face insolvency on its debt in two years….’Our problem is a common one — our expenses are going up faster than our revenues,’ said AU interim president Peter MacKinnon.

So Athabasca University is now in the same position as the Greek government, except it doesn’t have the EU, the IMF, or the Germans to look to for help – just the Alberta government, which itself has been fiscally devastated by the collapse of oil prices.

What’s it doing about it?

From the newspaper report, though, the task force is looking forward, rather than backwards. It has looked at four options, which are not mutually exclusive:

  • increase cost-effectiveness and streamline business, administrative and education practices;
  • refocus AU’s mission to serve only, or primarily, students who physically reside in Alberta;
  • become a federation with another Alberta post-secondary institution and/or
  • join an affiliation with universities both in and out of the province (e.g. the Canadian Virtual University).

(I probably have mixed up the options, but you can see what kind of options are being considered).

Why is it in such a mess?

I’m not sure I’m the right person to answer this question, nor the newspaper, but the interim President seems to offer up some culprits:

  • increased reliance on tuition and decreased government funding to cover operating expenses,
  • caps on tuition that limit AU revenue,
  • the location of AU (its main campus is in the boondocks 200 kilometres north of Edmonton and most of the faculty live elsewhere),
  • demands from employee collective agreements,
  • the province does not see IT infrastructure as a capital expense.

However, none (except possibly the over-generous and/or inflexible collective agreements) of these really gets to the root of the problem. There are three fundamental reasons for AU’s problems, all strongly interconnected:

  • gross financial and political mismanagement by the previous university administration (Board and President);
  • a failure by the previous Alberta government to understand or support a unique institution;
  • a failure to adapt fast enough from a heavily front-end loaded, print-based teaching model to lighter, more flexible online teaching methods.

What will happen to AU?

God knows, and certainly not someone sitting here in Vancouver. However, I have the heavy foreboding of a tragedy rapidly unfolding. Here’s why:

  • doing the same as it has been, but more ‘efficiently’, i.e. more cheaply, won’t cut it. The only way to really reduce costs within the current teaching model is to cut student support and central faculty, which will mean lower completion rates and/or poorer quality courses; it needs to implement a completely different model of teaching and learning, which would reduce operating costs, but would also require major capital investment, and ripping up current collective agreements, neither of which appear to be options;
  • its current model has high fixed costs and low marginal costs; limiting enrolment to Albertans will leave the high fixed costs, but will reduce the additional income from external students, a recipe for disaster. Indeed, AU should go in the opposite direction and go global – but it will need a more up-to-date teaching model to do this;
  • I find it hard to believe that the Albert government doesn’t understand that investment in IT infrastructure is essential for a modern university, and is far cheaper than building new campuses. More likely it is hesitant to throw good money after bad, because AU has previously poorly managed the management of IT.

One tempting solution would be to close Athabasca, and give the two main universities a mandate to absorb and redevelop the programs Athabasca has been offering, using some of the money that is currently being invested in Athabasca. However, there are two problems with this temptation:

  • first, Alberta’s problem, compared to other provinces, is that it has in the past left online and distance learning to Athabasca University. As a result, its other institutions, such as the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary, are way behind many other universities in Canada in moving to online and blended learning. They therefore lack current capacity. On the other hand, it could be argued that by hiring the best from Athabasca, this would be a good way to bring Alberta’s conventional universities up to speed in online learning. My guess though is that neither the University of Alberta nor Calgary would see this as a priority or even necessary. Alberta is not the only province with a degree of hubris.
  • Second, Athabasca is not really an online university, it is an open university, and in that sense it is unique. The British Columbia government’s experience in closing the Open Learning Agency and with it the Open University of BC in 2003 suggests that it will be very difficult to integrate the open components within a conventional university, as the experience at Thompson Rivers University, which now offers open courses through its Open Learning division, indicates.

What would I propose?

Thank goodness, it’s not my responsibility, and I don’t have all the facts and information needed to make an informed decision. But here are some suggestions:

  • this is really the Alberta government’s decision. It surely now has enough evidence to know that the current situation cannot continue and that there is no easy solution short of closing down Athabasca, which then opens up a whole new can of worms
  • what Alberta lacks (and it is not alone in this) is a provincial wide strategy for online and open learning. There is clearly demand, in terms of student numbers, and opportunities, in terms of online, blended learning, OERs and open access. What is the best way to provide this, in terms of the roles of the conventional institutions, and where does Athabasca then fit, if at all? Until it has worked out such a strategy, it should hold off on any interim decisions about Athabasca, other than to keep it on life support.

However, don’t bank on logic or strategic thinking to drive decision-making about Athabasca University. There are jobs in rural areas at stake, as well as the future of many dedicated and skilled faculty and staff at Athabasca University. But this is where Alberta’s real resources lie, in the skills and knowledge buried within Athabasca University, not in a particular institutional arrangement. So the government needs to act with caution but the goal should be making Alberta a leader in online and open education, by drawing on and possibly relocating the expertise within Athabasca, but not necessarily supporting the institution itself whose time may well have passed.

 

Investments in game-based learning and learning technology continues to grow

Listen with webReader

Growth in learning technology investment 2

Banville, L. (2015) Reports Highlight Strong Growth and Investor Interest in China, U.S. Game-based Learning Games and Learning, May 31

This is an interesting report that summarizes three major market research reports about investment in game-based learning particularly, and learning technologies in general.

It covers recent reports from the following three market research organizations:

Main results:

  • worldwide sales of game-based learning products hit $1.7 billion in 2013 (Ambient)
  • future growth in game-based learning products is expected to grow between 7%-16% per annum
  • global private investment in learning technologies generally topped $2.4 billion in 2014 (Ambient)
  • consumers are the top buyers of edugame packaged content, particularly in the early childhood market (Ambient)
  • the emergence of easy-to-use mobile game-building tools supports the cultural shift towards game-creation as an educational experience (Ambient).

One driving factor in the most recent growth has been investment in mobile learning companies in China.

Comment

Ambient Insight in particular has been extremely accurate in identifying investment trends in learning technologies.

Mobile learning and game-based learning look to be the main bets for commercial growth, followed by learning analytics.

The big question is though whether these investments will drive change in education, or whether the education market will reject one or more of these developments, either because they are too costly or difficult to implement (e.g. very high training costs to get teachers or learners to use them well) or because such technologies do not meet the actual learning needs of students.

Another question is whether the level of investment in any single educational game will be large enough to bring about major changes in learning. The danger is of spreading investment too thinly across too many games to have a major impact, focusing on low levels of learning such as memorization, rather than developing critical thinking or problem solving skills. Ambient Insight’s comment that easy-to-use mobile game-building tools are increasing suggests though that this will be an exciting area that is ripe for growth – and for research and evaluation. I just hope that educators and learners will be as involved as software developers in designing such educational games.

Next steps for the European HE system

Listen with webReader
The University of Siena: founded in 1240, but is it still relevant today?

The University of Siena: founded in 1240, but is it still relevant today?

Klemenčič, M. and Ashwin, P. (2015) What’s next for Europe? Inside Higher Ed, May 26

As my holiday in Italy draws to a close, I thought it would be appropriate to do a short blog on developments in European higher education. I look to my many readers in Europe to comment and correct me as appropriate.

What the article is about

This is an interesting article about future policy for European Higher Education, following the Bologna Process Ministerial Conference on May 14-15 in Yerevan, Armenia. (Sigh! Yes, you are right, Armenia is not yet part of the European Union, but it is a member of the Council of Europe, and, since 2005 has been part of the Bologna Process, which sets out pan-European strategy for higher education.)

This article gives a pretty good overview of what the Bologna Process has achieved to date, and also what it has not achieved, and also gives a good description of where European education ministers want to go in the future, in terms of pan-European policy.

The achievements of the Bologna Process

The Bologna Process is:

a voluntary convergence and coordinated reform of higher education systems across the member countries of the European Union and beyond. The aims have been to promote the mobility of students and staff and to enhance the quality and international competitiveness of European higher education.

The European Higher Education Area (EHEA) now has 48 members, including non-European Union countries such as the Russian Federation, Belarus, Armenia and the Ukraine.

Its successes include:

  • a common three-cycle degree structure across countries;
  • student mobility: students can transfer course credits acquired at one institution to any another institution in the EHEA;
  • European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance and the European Register of Quality Assurance Agencies, ensuring that all countries have compatible internal and external quality assurance procedures.

This of course raises the question: If the Europeans can enable students to transfer seamlessly between 4,000 higher education institutions across Europe and beyond (and they do, in droves), why is it so difficult to do this in Canada, and particularly within Ontario, for God’s sake?

One of the great scandals of Canadian higher education is the refusal of Ontario universities or the Ontario government to put in place any form of automatic transfer of credits. (Yeah, there are seven universities in Ontario that have a paper agreement amongst themselves, but the reality is that it is NOT an automatic process even between these seven institutions).

BC and Alberta have had a mutual transfer system in place for many years, but the only thing more difficult than moving from a university in BC (or from anywhere else in Canada) to a university in Ontario is taking a bottle of BC wine with you to Ontario (yes, that is actually illegal in Canada). Talk about provincialism.

The challenges of the Bologna Process

Like anything to do with the European Union, excessive bureaucracy is a major challenge. In particular, to quote from the article:

much of the energy of the Bologna Follow-Up Group, the governing body of the process, has been channeled into detailed questions about decision structures and processes. The Bologna Process needed a new sense of purpose to bring the governments together and re-energize international cooperation within the EHEA. And this indeed happened [at the Yerevan conference].

What’s driven this new sense of purpose is youth unemployment:

The unemployment rate for people 29 and younger in the European Union is 19 percent, the highest in at least 10 years. In Spain, the figure was 53 percent in November 2014; it was 49 percent, in Greece, followed closely by Croatia and Italy. Higher education is seen as one key pillar in Europe’s vision to fight unemployment among young people, preventing them from becoming a “lost generation” and source of social upheaval. The communiqué emphasizes the need to ensure that graduates possess competencies that will make them employable.

The article lists several ways this is to be done, such as:

  • a better dialogue between higher education institutions and employers,
  • a good balance between theoretical and practical components in curricula, and
  • continued support for international mobility for study and work placement.

The authors though acknowledge that:

higher education alone, of course, cannot solve the problem that is so clearly linked to economic growth and also labor regulations.

They might also have mentioned the failed economic policy of austerity, which is a major cause of youth unemployment in Europe.

A second objective is to make European higher education more inclusive. A particular concern is the low participation rate of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa in European higher education, and the possible radicalization of immigrant youth:

three types of mobility are accentuated in the communiqué: for students and staff from conflict areas, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and mobility of teacher education students.

The third objective is to improve the quality of teaching and learning in universities and colleges. The authors note that it is surprising that it has taken so long for this to emerge as a priority for this first time at the Armenia conference:

..the quality of teaching and learning is far from satisfactory and varies significantly across European systems and institutions…the majority of countries do not have a strategy for the advancement of teaching and learning or specific structures to support it. At best, higher education institutions are developing their own units for supporting excellence in teaching and learning or funding teaching development programs. At worse, higher education teachers are left to their own devices to improve their teaching (or not) when alerted by the outcomes of student satisfaction surveys.

In Yerevan, the ministers have committed to support higher education institutions in pedagogical innovation, exploring the use of digital technologies for learning and teaching, and in better linking learning and teaching with research, innovation and entrepreneurship. You have to wonder though why it took almost 20 years to get these items on the agenda.

What next?

The authors of the article are surprisingly optimistic that these new policies will be successfully implemented by the governments of member states. However, by 2018, the set target gate for implementation, both Greece and Britain may well have left the European Union, and I will be surprised if countries such as Italy, the Ukraine and Bulgaria will have made much progress towards these objectives, because of structural and economic difficulties.

Nevertheless, on balance, despite the stifling bureaucracy of the European Union, and the political and economic challenges faced by many European countries, the Bologna Process has enabled many European universities to improve their standards and to modernise, and is likely to continue to do so into the future.

One of the University of Siena's student computer labs

One of the University of Siena’s student computer labs

Update on online learning in Africa

Listen with webReader
One of the AVU’s new distance-learning centres is launched at the University of Education, Winneba in Ghana. Photograph: AVU

One of the AVU’s new distance-learning centres is launched at the University of Education, Winneba in Ghana. Photograph: AVU

Anderson, M. (2015) Out of Africa: e-learning makes further education a reality for tens of thousands The Guardian, May 20

The opening this week of the 10th e-Learning Africa international conference prompted this informative report by the British newspaper, the Guardian, about the state of virtual learning in Africa. I have used this to pull together a number of different strands about online learning developments in Africa.

The e-Learning Africa conference

Only 6% of Africans continue to any form of higher education (compared with a world average of 26%). Thus this year’s e-Learning Africa conference is particularly significant as it is taking place in Addis Ababa, the HQ of the African Union,which has prioritized virtual learning in its long-term development strategy.The conference is also hosted by the government of Ethiopia. Rebecca Stromeyer, one of the driving forces behind e-Learning Africa, has done a tremendous job in using the conference to promote the development of virtual and online learning in Africa.

The African Virtual University

The African Virtual University, a Pan African Intergovernmental Organization established by charter with the mandate of significantly increasing access to quality higher education and training through the innovative use of information communication technologies, is a major force in promoting virtual learning in Africa.

It is still relatively small in terms of student numbers, with a total of 43,000 students since it started in 1997. So far, 19 African countries signed a charter establishing AVU as an intergovernmental organisation. The AVU offered its first MOOC to 1,700 African students in March this year. Perhaps more significantly it is opening 29 new distance learning centres in 21 African countries at a cost of $200,000 each.

The AVU at the moment does not offer its own degrees, but works in partnership with other African universities to deliver online programs across Africa, sometimes in partnership also with foreign universities such as Indiana University in the USA and Laval University in Canada. AVU plans to start offering its own degrees next year.

UNISA

South Africa has been a leader in distance education in Africa for many years, with over 300,000 students a year currently enrolled in UNISA (the University of South Africa), but although it has some programs offered online, it has been somewhat reluctant to invest heavily in online technologies, because as an open university it has been concerned with the high cost and difficulties of access to the Internet for many Africans.

However, the AVU is considering making lectures accessible on mobile phones, which would tap into Africa’s estimated 112-million smartphones, and UNISA will need to move more quickly if it is to stay relevant in South African online and open education..

Fibre optics

Another major factor that is impacting on virtual learning in Africa is the spread of fibre optics. The first map shows the submarine networks and their international links and the second shows the internal, terrestrial fibre optic networks.

African submarine fibre optic networks Image: © African Politics Portal, 2010

African submarine fibre optic networks
Image: © African Politics Portal, 2010 

African terrestrial fibre optic networks Image: AfTerFibre: https://manypossibilities.net/afterfibre/

African terrestrial fibre optic networks
Image: AfTerFibre: https://manypossibilities.net/afterfibre/

The key factor here is capacity. Fibre optics enable much higher Internet speeds and bandwidth than mobile technologies (although of course the two will be used in combination) but the end result will be much cheaper Internet connectivity in Africa in the coming years.

Comment

I hesitate to suggest solutions for Africa – I’m too far away and the best solutions will be African originated. However, here’s my opinion, for what it’s worth.

Those institutions and organisations that are moving now into virtual learning will have a major competitive advantage as Internet access widens and the cost of access drops dramatically. Bakary Diallo, the rector of the AVU, believes that the AVU can drive down the cost of higher education in Africa, without losing quality. Timing will be critical though – too early a move and the large market will not be ready; too late and other providers will have moved in.

The key challenges though will be the following:

  • appropriate content: African developed OERs (such as OER Africa’s and the OERu’s) will be an essential component of a low cost, high quality, virtual learning system in Africa; at the same time, actual courses and programs available online will also be critically important and this will need substantial investment, mainly in teachers and instructional designers;
  • political recognition of the integrity and quality of virtual learning: African politicians have been very conservative in the past in recognising the value of online and distance learning. Nigeria, the major economic nation now in Africa, for instance, has almost no publicly funded online learning at a higher education level., because the government won’t recognise such qualifications. It is good that 19 countries have signed on to the AVU and the African Union has made virtual learning a priority. This though now has to be accepted by other African countries, and policies and strategies for virtual learning and above all recognition of qualifications now need rapid implementation by African governments;
  • institutional management. Even in highly developed countries, university administrators have struggled to manage well the development and maintenance of online learning. African universities will struggle even more with this challenge;
  • lack of qualified professionals: Africa has few professional instructional designers, although countries such as Kenya do have very good IT professionals and web designers. However, the private sector can offer much better salaries;
  • lack of funding: there is a high cost of investment in adopting online learning, and it will take political courage to put aside the funds needed at the level of magnitude to drive real change. However, this is no longer impossible for many African countries such as Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya, whose economies are rapidly growing. It is therefore more a question of political will than resources, for at least some African countries, although others will take much longer to catch up;
  • corruption: this has two aspects, open corruption, where government funds for online learning are diverted to individuals (usually politicians, but also sometimes local administrators), but probably much more significant will be the influence of major technology-based multinational corporations, who will lobby for money to be spent on (their) technology rather than on the human resources needed to sustain online learning (i.e. well qualified teachers).

Lastly, the challenge for Africa is to walk two paths at the same time. Online learning should not be used as a replacement for a high quality campus-based higher education system but as an integral part of a comprehensive system of higher education that includes face-to-face teaching, blended learning and fully online learning. Getting that balance right will be a mjor challenge.

Overall, though, I am very optimistic that the future belongs to Africa, and that online learning will be a critical component of that future.

Lessons about researching technology-enhanced instruction

Listen with webReader
Meiori, Amalfi Coast

Meiori, Amalfi Coast – when it’s not raining

Lopes, V. and Dion, N. (2105) Pitfalls and Potential: Lessons from HEQCO-Funded Research on Technology-Enhanced Instruction Toronto ON: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario

Since it’s raining heavily here on the Amalfi Coast today for the first time in months, I might as well do another blog post.

What this report is about

HEQCO (the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario) is an independent advisory agency funded by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities to provide recommendations for improving quality, accessibility, inter-institutional transfer, system planning, and effectiveness in higher education in Ontario. In 2011, HEQCO:

issued a call for research projects related to technology-enhanced instruction…. Now that the technology studies have concluded and that most have been published, this report draws some broader conclusions from their methods and findings.

What are the main conclusions?

1. There is no clear definition of what ‘technology’ means or what it refers to in many studies that investigate its impact on learning:

One assumes that the nature of the tools under investigation would have an impact on research design and on the metrics being measured. Yet little attention is paid to this problem, which in turns creates challenges when interpreting study findings.

2. There is no clear definition of blended or hybrid learning:

The proportion of online to face-to-face time, as well as the nature of the resources presented online, can both differ considerably. In a policy context, where we may wish to discuss issues across institutions or at a system level, the lack of consensus definitions can be particularly disruptive. In this respect, a universal definition of blended learning, applied consistently to guide practice across all colleges and universities, would be helpful.

3. Students need orientation to/training in the use of the technologies used in their teaching: they are not digital natives in the sense of being intuitively able to use technology for study purposes.

4. Instructors and teaching assistants should also be trained on the use and implementation of technology.

5. The simple presence of technology will rarely enhance a classroom. Instead, some thought has to go into integrating it effectively.

6. New technologies should be implemented not for their own sake but with a specific goal or learning outcome in mind.

7. Many of the HEQCO-funded studies, including several of those with complex study designs and rigorous methodologies, concluded that the technology being assessed had no significant effect on student learning.

8. Researchers in the HEQCO-funded studies faced challenges encouraging student participation, which often led to small sample sizes in situations where classroom-based interventions already limited the potential pool of participants.

9. The integration of technology in postsecondary education has progressed to such a point that we no longer need to ask whether we should use technology in the classroom, but rather which tool to use and how.

10. There is no single, unified, universally accepted model or theory that could be applied to ensure optimal learning in all educational settings.

Comment

I need to be careful in my comments, not because I’m ticked off with the weather here (hey, I live in Vancouver – we know all about rain), but because I’ve spent most of my working life researching technology-enhanced instruction, so what appears blindingly obvious to me is not necessarily obvious to others. So I don’t really know where to start in commenting on this report, except to say I found it immensely depressing.

Let me start by saying that there is really nothing in this report that was not known before the research was done (in other words, if they had asked me, I could have told HEQCO what to expect). I am a great supporter of action or participant research, because the person doing the research learns a great deal. But it is almost impossible to generalise such results, because they are so context-specific, and because the instructor is not usually trained in educational research, there are often – as with these studies – serious methodological flaws.

Second, trying to define technology is like trying to catch a moonbeam. The whole concept of defining a fixed state so that generalisations can be made to the same fixed state is entirely the wrong kind of framework for researching technology influences, because the technology is constantly changing. (This is just another version of the objectivist vs constructivist debate.)

So one major problem with this research is HEQCO’s expectations that the studies would lead to generalisations that could be applied across the system. If HEQCO wants that, it needs to use independent researchers and fund the interventions on a large enough scale – which of course means putting much more money into educational research than most governments are willing to risk. It also means sophisticated design that moves away from matched, controlled comparisons to in-depth case studies, using though rigorous qualitative research methodology.

This illustrates a basic problem with most educational research. It is done on such a small scale that the interventions are unlikely to lead to significant results. If you tweak just a little bit of a complex environment, any change is likely to be swamped by changes in other variables.

The second problem in most of the studies appears to be the failure to link technology-based interventions to changes in learning outcomes. In other words, did the use of technology lead to a different kind of learning? For instance, did the application of the technology lead students to think more critically or manage information well rather than reproduce or memorize what was being taught before? So another lesson is that you have to ask the right kind of research questions that focus on different kinds of learning outcomes.

Thus it is pointless to ask whether technology-based interventions lead to better learning outcomes than classroom teaching. There are too many other variables than technology to provide a definitive answer. The question to ask instead is: what are the required conditions for successful blended or hybrid learning, and what counts as success? The last part of the question means being clear on what different learning outcomes are being sought.

Indeed, there is a case to be made that it may be better not to set firm outcomes before the intervention, but to provide enough flexibility in the teaching context to see what happens when instructors and students have choices to make about technology use. This might mean looking backwards rather than forwards by identifying what most would deem highly successful technology interventions, then working back to see what conditions enabled this success.

But fiddling with the research methods won’t produce much if the intervention is too small scale. Nineteen little, independent studies are great for the instructors, but if we are to learn things than can be generalized, we need fewer but larger, more sophisticated, and more integrated studies. In the meantime, we are no further in being able to improve the design of blended or hybrid learning than before these research studies were done, which is why I am depressed.