April 24, 2014

Why successful consortia for online learning are so difficult

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Contact North's humble office in Sudbury, Ontario

Contact North’s humble office in Sudbury, Ontario

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Design an Innovative Course

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

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

Greater Flexibility as the New Mantra

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

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

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

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

Learn to fly – online

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tony-plane-3

Warnock, C. (2014) 1,600 students worldwide take online flight classes Daily Herald, April 5

“Yeah, you’ll be telling me next that you can learn to fly a plane online – what, you can?!”

Not only that, you can get a Bachelor of Science in Aviation from the Utah Valley University, Orem, the largest public university in the state of Utah. The program has 200 students studying on campus, and the other 1,600 studying online. The program enables students to get a private aviation license, an instrument license and even a commercial pilot’s license. The 1,600 students who take classes online do their actual flying hours in airports local to them, so it’s only the theory part that is done online (although there are an increasing number of flight simulation programs now available as well, for those interested).

I have a special interest as I also have a private pilot’s license – yes, that’s me with my plane, a Cessna 172. It took me over 30 hours of night classes to get through my theory classes, and I would love to have been able to have taken that part online at the time, as it meant two hours driving from home to the airport and back for each lesson.

I’m still flying and in 2008 I flew across Canada from coast to coast (Tofino to Sydney, Nova Scotia) and back again as part of the Century Flight Club’s celebration of 100 years since the first flight in Canada. The photo below os of Black Tusk mountain, near Whistler, and was taken by my grandson, Marley, who was 14 at the time.

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Blogs and wikis in formal higher education: examples of open education

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 UBC blogs

Raths, D. (2014) An e-portfolio with no limits Campus Technology, March 2

This is an article on a project by the University of Mary Washington, Virginia, that enables all students to create their own academic web presence through the provision of a university-wide blogging platform. The article provides some good examples of student work done through this project, particularly in history. A recent development at UMW has been the creation of a community site that aggregates the activity of the project, including sites created and content published. The article also provides links to similar projects at Emory University and Davidson College.

It should be noted that the University of British Columbia here in Vancouver established UBC Blogs and UBC Wiki several years ago.

UBC Blogs currently has 22,785 members. Go to http://blogs.ubc.ca/support/about/ to see the many different ways UBC Blogs are being used. Choosing any one is invidious, but the first one I came across is an excellent example, UBC student Matthew Kyriakides’ essay on gentrification and social movements in Vancouver’s downtown east side.

While the blog service is aimed at individual students and faculty members, i.e. anyone with a CWL (campus-wide log-in), the wiki enables group contributions:

The UBC Wiki is a shared space for use by students, staff, and faculty at the University of British Columbia. It serves as a course repository, a personal and collaborative work space, a documentation depository, and a growing guide to everything and anything UBC. The information, resources, and links that it contains are created, expanded, and annotated by its users. It is constantly evolving and changing because every member can add to it and edit any page.

A good example of a UBC wiki is Math Exam Resources:

a community project started in March 2012 by graduate students at the UBC Math Department [that] features hints and worked out solutions to past math exams. The goal of the project is to provide an open and free educational resource to undergraduate students taking math courses, with a strong emphasis for first and second year courses. The provided solutions do not simply provide what the answer is, but instead focus on the processes that it takes to solve the problem. The Math Exam Resources wiki offers:

    • Free study tips, hints and detailed solutions to past exams of the Math Department.
    • High quality content written by math graduate students. The content is reviewed and can be updated on the fly with your comments and feedback.
    • The ability to use the discussion pages of any page in this wiki to dialogue with us or with other students about mathematics!

I strongly recommend that you browse the UBC Blogs and Wiki sites in particular to see how social media are being integrated fully with credit-based online learning at UBC. Most UBC courses still use a learning management system that allows for ‘private’ or ‘course only’ communications, but the blogs and wikis open up the courses to the general public who can comment on blogs or participate in wikis. Linking blogs and wikis to particular courses and controlling access through the use of passwords enables a degree of quality control. Usually it is UBC students who are ‘in control’. This is a development of open education that deserves more attention.

Does distance education socialize students? A study from Québec

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image ©www.ameriquefrançais.org, 2014

image © www.amériquefrançaise.org, 2014

Loisier, J. (2014) Socialisation des Etudiants en FAD au Canada Francophone Montréal QC: REFAD

REFAD (the Canadian francophone distance education network) has published a very interesting research paper on socialization and distance education in francophone Canada by one of its research consultants, Dr. Jean Loisier. If you can read French, and are interested in research on the extent to which socialization exists and the role it plays in online and distance education, this report is essential reading. (Because of the value of this report, I hope it will be made available in English so that it can have a wider market).

As well as providing a good review of theoretical issues around the subject of socialization in education, which takes into account  students’ use of social media, the report is based on in-depth interviews with 26 distance education leaders in the majority of francophone post-secondary institutions, and 121 questionnaires received from distance education instructors.

The report covers six topics:

  • characteristics of francophone distance learners and their mode of distance learning (individual, cohort, flexible);
  • technologies that support or discourage socialization;
  • teaching strategies that focus or not on collaborative activities;
  • phenomena associated with group activities;
  • the need for “social relations” between students;
  • actions taken by Canadian institutions to support the integration of distance students, and the importance these institutions give to different aspects of socialization in relation to educational goals, and the importance these aspects of socialization have in maintaining and strengthening ties within the Francophone communities outside Quebec.

I’m not going to attempt to summarize a 144 page report in French, but Loisier’s conclusions in particular are quite provocative (if I have translated correctly!). He notes that while most distance education leaders support the idea of collaborative learning and the socialization of students, in practice this does not happen often in distance programs, and in any case collaborative learning often conflicts with the desire of distance students for individual and flexible learning. Furthermore, socialization does not occur automatically online merely by putting students together in groups. Nevertheless, there are important educational goals that are best facilitated through collaborative learning, but careful planning and a framework/context  are needed that avoid the more affective or emotional elements of socialization, and focus more on the cognitive elements of learning in a group.

This is one of the most interesting, provocative and useful research reports I’ve read in a long while.