May 5, 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-.

Is video a threat to learning management systems?

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We need more high quality video such as this from UBC Click on image to see the full video

We need more high quality video such as this from UBC
Click on image to see the full video

Bersin, J. (2016) Will video-based learning kill the LMS? Chief Learning Officer, February 15

This article raises a question that has been on my mind for some time. Bersin makes the following points:

  • the LMS industry is worth more than $3 billion in size, and has been growing at roughly 20% per annum
  • more than a billion people regularly watch video online, according to YouTube
  • video makes up 64% of all traffic on mobile phones
  • many organizations such as Khan Academy, Udemy, Skillsoft and BigThink are producing thousands of hours of easily accessible, high quality instructional video, generally authored by ‘experts’, not college instructors;
  • only a few of the 300 or so LMS vendors ‘have come to grips with user and corporate needs for video-based learning’.

Bersin is writing primarily for the corporate training market, but the same trends can be seen in post-secondary education:

  • MOOCs took off because they were video-based, using lecture capture, thus walking right round the need to use an LMS
  • the most popular form of blended learning is the flipped classroom, using video to record a lecture then using the classroom for discussion and questions – no LMS needed
  • it is not just video that is beginning to remove the need for LMSs, as some faculty and instructors move to more learner-centred teaching, where students find and analyse information using online learning and co-create content with their instructors, using video, graphics and audio as well as text, and e-portfolios and social media such as blogs and wikis.

Bersin then goes on to ask some very important questions about using video for education and training:

  • How do we rapidly develop and publish video for fast and easy use?
  • How do we tag content easily and make it discoverable?
  • How do we recommend video to users based on their profile and activity?
  • How do we track usage of video, bookmark video and create inter-activities and branching?
  • What types of video are best for learning? Comedy? Experts? Teachers online?
  • How do we protect copyright and other possible rights violations as we snap videos at work all day?
  • How do we arrange and manage video for serious professional development and career growth?
  • How do we create a user experience that is as easy and compelling as a consumer website or TV set?

Bersin claims that ‘most of these problems are being solved — or have been solved — by massive consumer Internet companies already, yet they barely exist in corporate learning platforms because LMS vendors are scrambling to catch up.’:

  • Workday’s new market entry focuses on this area;
  • Skillsoft is announcing a variety of new video options in its platforms;
  • Oracle announced a new video-based LMS;
  • SAP is evolving its video platforms and opening up application programming interfaces to massive open online courses.

How will universities and colleges respond to these developments? Probably they will ignore them, but I think that would be foolishly short-sighted. Good quality video is going to become an increasingly important part of online learning. I find it somewhat ironic that many universities closed their multimedia production departments in the 2000s. It looks like we may need them again, but structured and operated in a way that leverages new technology and new corporate partners. (For a good example of high quality, university-developed video, see Dr. Claudia Kreb’s excellent YouTube video ‘An Introduction to the Central Nervous System‘ – just click on the graphic.)

However, even though video should become a much more important component of post-secondary teaching, I don’t see LMSs going away. Videos are not a replacement for an LMS. Video on its own does not structure students’ learning, as does an LMS. The issue is whether the production component of video should be embedded within the LMS, or remain separate but integrated (i.e. through links).

Video has many pedagogical benefits, but also some severe limitations (see my Chapter 7 in Teaching in a Digital Age). Nevertheless video is not being used enough in post-secondary education, and often when it is used (for recording lectures, for instance) it fails to exploit its unique learning potential. We could learn much from corporate training and the massive Internet providers such as Google and Vimeo on how to produce low cost, high quality video for education.

The future of learning content – and campus bookstores

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Bookstore line-up

Ellis, T. (2016) Developing a course content strategy University Business, February

This article has made me realise the still massive difference between what actually happens on campus and the future we are moving to. This article is written primarily for campus book store managers and makes me think that they don’t know what’s going to hit them over the next few years.

The article was based on a survey that came to the following conclusion:

students and faculty prefer printed textbooks but cost and enhanced learning experiences are fuelling interest in the transition to digital and ultimately to adaptive learning courseware and platform-based products… content creators… will continue to proliferate…conditions will favor retail giants and smaller niche players

The article then goes on (not surprisingly) to argue that campus store managers should play a key role in making decisions about course materials and related services.

Why they are in for a shock

We’ve already seen that BCcampus has now developed online, open textbooks for most of the core curriculum for first and second year university and college courses, saving students over $1 million in text book costs. How long before other jurisdictions move in this direction?

Secondly, increasing amounts of research, data and learning materials are now available through open access journals. Increasingly ‘niche’ textbooks for more advanced or higher level courses will also be available online through Amazon, Apple and other ‘retail giants’ – or delivered to the student’s door. Faculty and students will increasingly use online open educational resources as content. And finally, faculty and instructors will increasingly move away from recommending ‘packaged’ content to getting learners to find, analyse, integrate and evaluate the massive amount of content that will be freely available over the Internet, thus facilitating the development of learners fit for a knowledge-based society.

So the day when students have to queue for hours in the book store for the first few days of the semester should become a distant memory, as soon as possible. More seriously, why then would book store managers be involved in decisions about learning content any more?

Sure there will always be a role for a store on campus, and it may have a very small section for niche books, but campus ‘book stores’ will soon be as outdated as typewriters.

MIT aims to expand its research into learning

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Diffusion tension imaging Satrajit Ghosh, MIT

Diffusion tension imaging Satrajit Ghosh, MIT

Chandler, D. (2016) New initiatives accelerate learning research and its applications MIT News, February 2

The President of MIT has announced a significant expansion of the Institute’s programs in learning research and online and digital education, through the creation of the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili).

The integrated science of learning — now emerging as a significant field of research — will be the core of MITili (to be pronounced “mightily”), a cross-disciplinary, Institute-wide initiative to foster rigorous quantitative and qualitative research on how people learn.

MITili will combine research in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, economics, engineering, public policy, and other fields to investigate what methods and approaches to education work best for different people and subjects. The effort will also examine how to improve the educational experience within MIT and in the world at large, at all levels of teaching.

The findings that spin out of MITili will then be applied to improve teaching on campus and online.

Comment

First, I very much welcome this initiative by a prestigious research university seriously to research what MIT calls the ‘science of learning’. Research into learning has generally been relatively poorly funded compared with research into science, engineering and computing.

However, I hope that MIT will approach this in the right way and avoid the hubris they displayed when moving into MOOCs, where they ignored all previous research into online learning.

It is critical that those working in MITili do not assume that there is nothing already known about learning. Although exploring the contribution that the physical sciences, such as biological research into the relationship between brain functionality and learning, can make to our understanding of learning is welcome, as much attention needs to be paid to the environmental conditions that support or inhibit learning, to what kind of teaching approaches encourage different kinds of learning, and to the previous, well-grounded research into the psychology of learning.

In other words, not only a multi-disciplinary, but also a multi-epistemological approach will be needed, drawing as much from educational research and the social sciences as from the natural sciences. Is MIT willing and able to do this? After all, learning is a human, not a mechanical activity, when all is said and done.