February 27, 2017

Tracking innovations in online learning in Canada

Rue St Jean, Québec City. Temperatures ranged from -17 C to -23 C -without wind chill added

I’ve not been blogging much recently because, frankly, I’ve been too busy, and not on the golf course or ski slopes, either. (Yeah, so what happened to my retirement? Failed again).

Assessing the state of online learning in Canada

I am working on two projects at the moment:

These two projects in fact complement one another nicely, with the first aiming to provide a broad and accurate picture of the extent of online learning in Canada, and the other focusing on the more qualitative aspects of innovation in online learning, and all in time for not only for the 150th anniversary of Confederation in Canada (which was really the creation of a new, independent state in North America) but also ICDE’s World Congress on Online Learning in Toronto in October, whose theme is, guess what, Teaching in a Digital Age (now there’s a co-incidence).

Of course, I’m not doing this on my own. In both projects I am working with a great group of people.

Methodology

My mandate for Contact North is to identify 8-12 cases of innovation in online learning from all of Canada other than Ontario. I started of course in British Columbia, early in January, and last week I visited six post-secondary institutions in four cities in Québec.

To find the cases, I have gone to faculty development workshops where instructors showcase their innovations, or I have contacted instructional designers I know in different institutions to recommend cases. The institutions are chosen to reflect provinces, and universities and colleges within each province.

Each visit involves an interview with the instructor responsible for the innovation, and where possible a demonstration or examples of the innovation. (One great thing about online learning is that it leaves a clear footprint that can be captured).

I then write up a short report, using a set of headings provided by Contact North, and then return that to the instructor to ensure that it is accurate. I then submit the case report to Contact North.

I am not sure whether Contact North will publish all the cases I report on its web site, as I will certainly cover much more than 8-12 cases in the course of this project. However, it is hoped that at least some of the instructors featured will showcase their innovations at the World Congress of Online Learning.

Progress to date

I have conducted interviews (but not finished the reports yet) for the following:

British Columbia

  • the use of an online dialectical map to develop argumentation skills in undergraduate science students (Simon Fraser University – SFU)
  • peer evaluation as a learning and assessment strategy for building teamwork skills in business school programs (SFU)
  • the development of a mobile app for teaching the analysis of soil samples (University of British Columbia)
  • PRAXIS: software to enable real-time, team-based decision-making skills through simulations of real-world emergency situations (Justice Institute of British Columbia)

Québec

  • comodal synchronous teaching, enabling students to choose between attending a live lecture or participating at the same time from home/at a distance (Laval University)
  • synchronous online teaching of the use of learning technologies in a teacher education program (Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières – UQTR)
  • achieving high completion rates in a MOOC on the importance of children’s play (UQTR)
  • a blended course on effective face-to-face teaching for in-service teachers (TÉLUQ)
  • use of iBook Author software for content management for cardiology students and faculty in a teaching hospital (Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Sherbrooke – Sherbrooke University Hospital: CHUS)
  • a decision-making tool to develop active and coherent learning scenarios that leverage the use of learning technologies (Université de Montréal).
  • Mathema-TIC: francophone open educational resources for teaching mathematics in universities and colleges (Université de Montréal).

These visits would not have been possible without the assistance of France Lafleur, an online instructor from UQTR who not only arranged many of the meetings but also did all the driving. Anyone from outside Québec who has tried to drive across the province in winter, and especially tried to navigate and drive to several parts of Montréal the same day, will understand why this help was invaluable.

Response and reaction

Faculty and instructors often receive a lot of criticism for being resistant to change in their teaching. This project however starts from an opposite position. What are faculty and instructors actually doing in terms of innovation in their teaching? What can we learn from this regarding change and the development of new teaching approaches? What works and what doesn’t?

It is dangerous at this stage to start drawing conclusions. This is not a representative selection of even innovative projects, and the project – in terms of my participation – has just started. The definition of innovation is also imprecise. It’s like trying to describe an elephant to someone who’s never seen one: you might find it difficult to imagine, but you’ll know it when you see it.

However, even with such a small sample, some things are obvious:

  • innovation in online teaching is alive and well in Canadian post-secondary education: there is a lot going on. It was not difficult to identify these 11 cases; I could have easily found many more if I had the time;
  • the one common feature across all the instructors I have interviewed is their enthusiasm and passion for their projects. They are all genuinely excited by what they were doing. Their teaching has been galvanised by their involvement in the innovation; 
  • in some of the cases, there are measured improvements in student learning outcomes, or, more importantly, new ’21st century skills’ such as teamwork, evidence-based argumentation, and knowledge management are being developed as a result of the innovation;
  • although again these are early days for me, there seems to be a widening gap between what is actually happening on the ground and what we read or hear about in the literature and at conferences on innovation in online learning. The innovation I am seeing is often built around simple but effective changes, such as a web-based map, or a slight change of teaching approach, such as opening up a lecture class to students who don’t want to – or can’t – come in to the campus on a particular day. However, these innovations are radically changing the dynamics of classroom teaching;
  • blended learning is breaking out all over the place. Most of these cases involve a mix of classroom and online learning, but there is no standard model – such as flipped classrooms – emerging. They all vary quite considerably from each other; 
  • the innovations are still somewhat isolated although a couple have gone beyond the original instructor and have been adopted by colleagues; however there is usually no institutional strategy or process for evaluating innovations and making sure that they are taken up across a wider range of teaching, although instructional designers working together provide one means for doing this. Evaluation of the innovation though is usually just left to the innovator, with all the risks that this entails in terms of objectivity.

Next steps

I still have at least one more case from another institution in British Columbia to follow up, and I now have a backlog of reports to do. I hope to have these all finished by the end of this month.

I have two more trips to organise. The first will be to the prairie provinces:

  • Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, which I hope to do in mid-March.

The next will be to the Maritimes,

  • Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, and Newfoundland, which I will do probably in April or May.

No further cases or institutions have been identified at this moment, and I am definitely open to suggestions in these provinces if you have any. The criterion for choice is as follows:

  • The focus is first and foremost on practice, on actual teaching and learning applications – not policy, funding, planning issues, descriptions of broad services, or broader concerns.
  • The interest is in applications of pedagogy using technology for classroom, blended, and online learning with the emphasis on student learning, engagement, assessment, access, etc. The pedagogy is as important as the technology in terms of innovation.
  • The emphasis is on innovative practices that can be replicated or used by other instructors.
  • We are particularly looking for cases where some form of evaluation of the innovation has been conducted or where there is clear evidence of success.

If you can recommend a case that you think fits well these parameters, please drop me a line at tony.bates@ubc.ca.

In the meantime, look out for the case studies being posted to Contact North’s Pocket of Innovation web site over the next few months. There are also more cases from Ontario being done at the same time.

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.

2016: The Year I Failed Retirement

Cruising is a bit of a challenge for me

I don’t think I’m temperamentally suited to cruises

The new age of retirement

I decided in April 2014 ‘to stop (nearly) all professional activities from now onwards’. I argued that ‘it is dangerous for a consultant to become adrift from the reality of teaching and management’ and ‘this is not a profession where you can be half in and half out.’

In particular, I wanted to write a ‘farewell’ book that would try to capture my expertise for those who might benefit from 40 years of teaching online and at a distance. I completed that book, Teaching in a Digital Age, almost exactly a year later, in April, 2015.

I realised that this might entail some follow-up, such as appearances at conferences or webinars to publicize the book, but that ought to be over by the end of 2015. 2016 would be the year to finally let go, play lots of golf, travel with my wife and fix all the things around the house that I’ve been putting off for years. So how is that going?

Not so good. Certainly I have played lots of golf, my wife and I took our first cruise, and we went on a trip up the west coast of British Columbia to the Great Bear Rain Forest, and saw two grizzly bears in the wild, but the work part didn’t pan out as I had expected.

'Bent-ear' was in the forest on the bank opposite our Zodiac

‘Bent-ear’ was on the bank of the Atnarko River, about 50 metres away

Here is the list of my activities in 2016.

Ryerson University

I was honoured to be invited to be a distinguished visiting professor for 2016 by the Raymond G. Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University. Ryerson is probably in general terms the most innovative university in Canada, and I had a somewhat tenuous but very welcome prior connection with Chang through its Digital Education Strategies unit. Leonora Zefi, Naza Djafarova and other colleagues in DES had provided valuable feedback on early drafts of my book.

DES has been supporting a number of innovative online teaching projects at Ryerson, such as the Law Practice Program and Lake Devo animations, and is developing expertise in research into educational games.

Lake Devo friendship 2

Lake Devo animation supports online role-play activity in an educational context.

Part of my duties was to present at the annual Chang Talks and also to sit in on a meeting to help develop an institutional e-learning strategy for Ryerson.

Conferences, presentations and workshops

Although I have done far less than in earlier years, I still had a number of academic engagements:

  • six keynotes/presentations: two in Toronto (Ryerson University and Nelson Publishing), and once each in Budapest (EDEN), Madeira (IADIS), Philadelphia (Drexel University), and Kingston, Ontario (Queen’s University);
  • two workshops, one for Chinese university presidents on managing learning technologies at UBC; and one at Ryerson University, Toronto to help develop their eLearning strategy;
  • nine webinars (to universities in Iran, Lebanon, Israel, Australia, and Alberta, to European Union educational policy-makers in Brussels, and three Contact North webinars offered internationally), all on topics from my book;
  • attendance at two demofests in Vancouver/Burnaby where innovators from post-secondary institutions in British Columbia demonstrated what they are doing;
  • several press interviews.
The Pestana Casino Park Hotel, Funchal, site of the IADIS conference - hey, someone has to do this.

The Pestana Casino Park Hotel, Funchal, site of the IADIS conference – hey, someone has to do this.

Teaching in a Digital Age

The book has continued to generate a lot of activity. The English version has been downloaded over 46,000 times and the book has been translated into French, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Portuguese. There are also translations under way in Spanish, Turkish, Arabic, Farsi and Hebrew. Voluntarily translating a 500 page book into another language requires a huge amount of work, but if it had not been published under an open license, it is unlikely to have been translated into so many different languages, all by volunteers. There are also a couple of major adaptations, one in South Africa (English), and one in Argentina (Spanish), to suit regional requirements. Contact North and BCcampus have sites that host both the English and French versions, and BCcampus also hosts the Vietnamese version.

I am of course delighted at the success of the book, and I am very happy to provide the necessary help to get the translations into Pressbooks, deal with translation issues, and to help the organizations providing translations with understanding the Creative Commons licensing agreement.

However, it is been a struggle to get some of the organizations supporting the translations to understand fully the concept of openness. Some have just made print copies available and have yet to provide a url from where anyone can download a copy in the appropriate language, or a digital copy that could be made available through the BCcampus web site. Thus ensuring the translations are also fully open and accessible online is still very much a work in progress on my part.

10 Fundamentals of Online Learning

During 2016 I did a series of 10 blog posts called ‘Online Learning for Beginners’, realising that although Teaching in a Digital Age had been downloaded over 46,000 times, there are still many faculty who are not yet committed enough to online learning to even look at the book.

Contact North then edited and published my 10 guides as a short, 37 page booklet, ‘The Ten Fundamentals Of Teaching Online‘ that is really a first step towards getting faculty and instructors to read Teaching in a Digital Age, and more importantly to challenge some of the myths and misunderstandings that many faculty have about teaching online. The Ten Fundamentals was published in October this year and has so far been downloaded just over 300 times and has already been translated into Spanish by a professor in Argentina.

Blogging

During the year I did 74 blog posts, which is little more than one a week, compared with the 213 blog posts in 2013, the year before I decided to retire. So I have definitely reduced my blogging activity.

However, although I am blogging 70% less than I used to, my blog site was more active in 2016 than in any previous years, with a total of 417,000 hits. In fact, the number of hits to the site was 33% higher in 2016 than in 2014. This is somewhat surprising, since the golden rule of blogging is that the more you blog, the more hits you will get.

blog-stats-dec-16-2

If though we look at Table 1 below, I can perhaps explain this anomaly. The year the post was published is in brackets; TIDA means the post was an early draft of a section of Teaching in a Digital Age)

Table 1: No. of hits per post in 2016 (top 20 posts)

The world’s largest supplier of free online learning? (2012) 38,618
A short history of educational technology (2014: TIDA) 33,367
What Is Distance Education? (2008) 20,961
Recommended graduate programs in e-learning (2008) 14,636
The strengths and weaknesses of competency-based learning in a digital age (2014; TIDA) 14,435
Learning theories and online learning (2014; TIDA) 12,017
Deciding on appropriate media for teaching and learning (2014; TIDA) 11,423
A student guide to studying online (2012) 8,042
Advice to students about Athabasca University (2015) 6,860
The role of communities of practice in a digital age (2014; TIDA) 6,282
Building an effective learning environment (2016) 6,156
Can you teach ‘real’ engineering at a distance? (2009) 6,113
Key characteristics of learners in a digital age……(2014; TIDA) 5,109
Is the ADDIE model appropriate for teaching in a digital age? (2014; TIDA) 4,793
5. Models for selecting media and technology: 5. Media or technology? (2011) 4,157
Comparing xMOOCs and cMOOCs: philosophy and practice (2014; TIDA) 4,021
Teaching in a Digital Age (2015) 3,722
Why learner support is an important component in the design of teaching.…(2014; TIDA) 3,469
Does technology change the nature of knowledge? (2009) 3,380
Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 7: Design course structure…(2012) 3,197

 

There was only one post published in 2016 (Building an Effective Learning Environment) that appears in the top 20 posts (in terms of the number of hits) for 2016, and even that was a summary/discussion of Appendix A in Teaching in a Digital Age. Nine other posts in the top 20 were early drafts of sections of Teaching in a Digital Age.

My interpretation of this is that the blog site is being used increasingly as a resource, rather than as a news site, especially by students who are studying on courses about online learning and teaching. This means that each year different students are coming back to the same posts. I cannot explain though why they are using drafts from my blog site rather than (or as well as) using the text of the book. There is though apparently a strong relationship and interaction between my blog site and the book.

Also three of the top five posts, and five of the top ten posts, are ‘general’ posts for online students about studying online. There are of course many more students than instructors, which explains why these are topics that come near to the top each year.

‘Can you teach real engineering online’ has generated the most number of comments (127 in all) and continues to be a lively forum seven years after it was originally published (and an indication of student frustration at the limited opportunities to study engineering online). ‘The worlds’ largest supplier of free online learning?’, about ALISON, has generated 104 comments and is also still active. ‘What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs’ has generated 54 comments, but there was only one comment on this post this year, and only one post on MOOCs reached the top 20 in 2016, which suggests interest in MOOCs may be waning, at least among my readers.

The national survey of online learning in Canada

Finally, one activity that I hadn’t planned for in 2016 that is taking up a great deal of my time is the proposed national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions, in collaboration with the Babson Survey Research Group. This activity will continue into 2017.

Must do better

Although I am reducing my level of activity, I’m still playing, although at a somewhat slower pace. In terms of actually retiring though I am definitely failing, at least a ‘D’ if not an ‘F’. I will try to do better next year.

 

Online learning in 2016: a personal review


global-peace-index-2016-aglobal-peace-initiative-b

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image: © Institute for Economics and Peace. Canada is ranked seventh most peaceful. We don’t know where it ranks though in terms of online learning.

A personal review

I am not going to do a review of all the developments in online learning in 2016 (for this, see Audrey Watters’ excellent HackEducation Trends). What I am going to do instead is review what I actually wrote about in 2016 in this blog, indicating what to me was of particular interest in online learning during 2016. I have identified 38 posts I wrote in which I have explored in some detail issues that bubbled up (at least for me) in 2016.

1. Tracking online learning

Building a national survey of online learning in Canada (134 hits)

A national survey of university online and distance learning in Canada (1,529 hits)

In the USA, fully online enrollments continue to grow in 2014 (91 hits)

Are you ready for blended learning? (389 hits)

What the Conference Board of Canada thinks about online learning (200 hits)

I indulged my obsession with knowing the extent to which online learning is penetrating post-secondary education with five posts on this topic. In a field undergoing such rapid changes, it is increasingly important to be able to track exactly what is going on. Thus a large part of my professional activity in 2016 has been devoted to establishing, almost from scratch, a national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions. I would have written more about this topic, but until the survey has been successfully conducted in 2017, I have preferred to keep a low profile on this issue.

However, during 2016 it did become clear to me, partly as a result of pilot testing of the questionnaire, and partly through visits to universities, that blended learning is not only gaining ground in Canadian post-secondary education at a much faster rate than I had anticipated, but is raising critical questions about what is best done online and what face-to-face, and how to prepare institutions and instructors for what is essentially a revolution in teaching.

This can be best summarized by what I wrote about the Conference Board of Canada’s report:

What is going on is a slowly boiling and considerably variable revolution in higher education that is not easily measured or even captured in individual anecdotes or interviews.

2. Faculty development and training

Getting faculty and instructors into online learning (183 hits)

Initiating instructors to online learning: 10 fundamentals (529 hits)

Online learning for beginners: 10. Ready to go (+ nine other posts on this topic = 4,238 hits)

5 IDEAS for a pedagogy of online learning (708 hits)

This was the area to which I devoted the most space, with ten posts on ‘Online Learning for Beginners’, aimed at instructors resisting or unready for online learning. These ten posts were then edited and published by Contact North as the 10 Fundamentals of Teaching Online.

Two fundamental conclusions: we need not only better organizational strategies to ensure that faculty have the knowledge and training they will need for effective teaching and learning in a digital age, but we also need to develop new teaching strategies and approaches that can exploit the benefits and even more importantly avoid the pitfalls of blended learning and learning technologies. I have been trying to make a contribution in this area, but much more needs to be done.

3. Learning environments

Building an effective learning environment (6,173 hits)

EDEN 2016: Re-imagining Learning Environments (597 hits)

Culture and effective online learning environments (1,260 hits)

Closely linked to developing appropriate pedagogies for a digital age is the concept of designing appropriate learning environments, based on learners’ construction of knowledge and the role of instructors in guiding and fostering knowledge management, independent learning and other 21st century skills.

This approach I argued is a better ‘fit’ for learners in a digital age than thinking in terms of blended, hybrid or fully online learning, and recognizes that not only can technology to be used to design very different kinds of learning environments from school or campus based learning environments, but also that technology is just one component of a much richer learning context.
Slide15

4. Experiential learning online

A full day of experiential learning in action (188 hits)

An example of online experiential learning: Ryerson University’s Law Practice Program (383 hits)

Is networked learning experiential learning? (163 hits)

These three posts explored a number of ways in which experiential learning is being done online, as this is a key methodology for developing skills in particular.

5. Open education

Acorns to oaks? British Columbia continues its progress with OERs (185 hits)

Talking numbers about open publishing and online learning (113 hits)

Towards an open pedagogy for online learning (385 hits)

These posts also tracked the development of open publishing and open educational resources, particularly in British Columbia, leading me to conclude that the OER ‘movement’ has far too narrow a concept of open-ness and that in its place we need an open pedagogy into which open educational resources are again just one component, and perhaps not the most significant.

6. Technology applications in online learning

An excellent guide to multimedia course design (659 hits)

Is video a threat to learning management systems? (603 hits)

Some comments on synchronous online learning technologies (231 hits)

Amongst all the hype about augmented reality, learning analytics and the application of artificial intelligence, I found it more useful to look at some of the technologies that are in everyday use in online learning, and how these could best be used.

7. Technology and alienation

Technology and alienation: online learning and labour market needs (319 hits)

Technology and alienation: symptoms, causes and a framework for discussion (512 hits)

Technology, alienation and the role of education: an introduction (375 hits)

Automation or empowerment: online learning at the crossroads (1,571 hits)

Why digital technology is not necessarily the answer to your problem (474 hits)

These were more philosophical pieces, prompted to some extent by the wider concerns of the impact of technology on jobs and how that has influenced Brexit and the Trump phenomena.

Nevertheless this issue is also very relevant to the teaching context. In particular I was challenging the ‘Silicon Valley’ assumption that computers will eventually replace the need for teachers, and in particular the danger of using algorithms in teaching without knowing who wrote the algorithms, what their philosophy of teaching is, and thus what assumptions have been built into the use of data.

Image: Applift

Image: Applift

8. Learning analytics

Learning analytics and learning design at the UK Open University (90 hits)

Examining ethical and privacy issues surrounding learning analytics (321 hits)

Continuing more or less the same theme of analysing the downside as well as the upside of technology in education, these two posts looked at how some institutions, and the UK Open University in particular, are being thoughtful about the implications of learning analytics, and building in policies for protecting privacy and gaining student ‘social license’ for the use of analytics.

9. Assessment

Developing a next generation online learning assessment system (532 hits)

This is an area where much more work needs to be done. If we are to develop new or better pedagogies for a digital age, we will also need better assessment methods. Unfortunately the focus once again appears to be more on the tools of assessment, such as online proctoring, where large gains have been made in 2016, but which still focus on proctoring traditional assessment procedures such as time-restricted exams, multiple choice tests and essay writing. What we need are new methods of assessment that focus on measuring the types of knowledge and skills that are needed in a digital age.

For instance, e-portfolios have held a lot of promise for a long time, but are still being used and evaluated at a painfully slow rate. They do offer though one method for assessment that reflects much better the needs of assessing 21st century knowledge and skills. However we need more imagination and creativity in developing new assessment methods for measuring the knowledge and skills needed for a digital age.

That was the year that was

Well, it was 2016 from the perspective of someone no longer teaching online or managing online learning:

  • How far off am I, from your perspective?
  • What were the most significant developments for you in online learning in 2016?
  • What did I miss that you think should have been included? Perhaps I can focus on this next year.

I have one more post looking at 2016 to come, but that will be more personal, looking at my whole range of online learning activities in 2016.

In the meantime have a great seasonal break and I will be back in touch some time in the new year.

Are you ready for blended learning?

changing-teaching-methods-2

I’ve just come back from visiting two universities in central Canada and I have also been getting feedback from pilot institutions on the questionnaire we are developing for a survey of online learning in Canada. Although I do not want to anticipate the results of the survey, some things are already becoming clear, especially about blended learning.

Definition

First of course there is the question of definition. What actually is blended learning? It clearly means different things to different people. I have tried to describe it as on a continuum of educational delivery (see graphic below):

From Chapter 9.1.2, Teaching in a Digital Age

From Chapter 9.1.2, Teaching in a Digital Age

Blended learning can be seen as

  • nothing more than Powerpoint slides in a classroom lecture,
  • extra homework online after a face-to-face class,
  • a ‘flipped’ classroom where the lecture is recorded and available online, and the class time is used for discussion and questions about the video
  • a totally re-designed course, where careful choices have been made about what is done online and what in class (hybrid).

When there are so many different meanings for the same phrase, it becomes somewhat meaningless. For this reason, one recommendation made to us most strongly was that in our survey blended should be counted only when there is a deliberate replacement of face-to-face time with online learning. At least that should be measurable. But what if, in a flipped class, the lecture time is merely replaced with a face-to-face seminar, with the lecture online? Same amount of face-to-face teaching but an increased workload for the student.

It’s not about quantity; it’s about quality

If we take the broad definition to include all or most of the points above, we can certainly make one fairly confident prediction. Nearly all post-secondary teaching, at least in North America, will be blended. In other words, almost all teaching will be either fully online, or a mix of classroom and online activities, if it is not already. Even in the most traditional lecture-based physics courses, for instance, students are likely to have online exercises to do associated with the course set book.

In fact we’ve been told in some of the feedback on the survey questionnaire that blended learning is already the norm in most Canadian post-secondary institutions. This may or may not be true – hopefully the survey will reject or confirm this assumption – but that seems to be the perception of many of those closest to the action. The issue then is not will blended learning become the norm, but how quickly, and my guess is that nearly all courses in Canadian post-secondary institutions will be online or blended within the next five years.

The key question then is not whether or not blended learning will be the norm, but will it be done well or badly? It is this question that keeps me awake at night, because there is no guarantee that classroom instructors drifting into blended learning know anything about the best practices for online teaching, or indeed whether these best practices will migrate successfully to the many different forms of blended learning that will emerge.

What do we do on campus when students can learn most things online?

One reason I lie awake at night is because we have no evidence-based research or theory that can guide instructors on this question. We certainly have a lot of opinions about what can best be taught online and what face-to-face, and we certainly have a lot of good research and theory, and best practice, about how to teach effectively fully online.

Indeed, it is the on-campus activities that are less well defined when students can study online. Or to put it more bluntly, what can we offer students on campus that makes it worth their time to get out of bed and on the bus on a cold and frosty morning that they can’t get by staying home and studying online? What is the added value of the campus or the classroom?

The answer to this question of course will vary from subject to subject. An experienced instructor will maybe intuitively work this out for herself, but there is a lot of scope for getting it wrong as well. I don’t want to under-rate instructor intuition, but theory and research on this question is desperately needed, at least to offset guessing and ‘I know best’ attitudes. Indeed, for far too long, many on-campus instructors have incorrectly assumed that certain teaching or learning activities can only be done well on campus when in fact we have found they can be done just as well or better online. In the future, if not at present, even laboratory work may be done as well online through the use of remote labs, online simulations and/or augmented reality.

So what guidelines or framework can we offer instructors in making these decisions? I have suggested in Chapter 9 of Teaching in a Digital Age four criteria and a simple process for making a decision about the mode of delivery but I am more aware than anybody how fragile and tentative this is without it being backed by theory and research. It is also one thing to decide to do a blended class rather than a face-to-face class, but quite another to decide what should best be done in each of the different modes of delivery.

Why get on the bus when you can study online?

Why get on the bus when you can study online?

Organizational issues

Another factor which unfortunately is often the first issue that institutions try to determine when moving to blended learning is the organizational structure for the learning support units, such as those housing instructional designers, web and media developers, and technical support for LMSs, etc. For many institutions, it is recognized that mainline, on-campus faculty will need substantial learning technology and instructional design support if they are to move to blended learning, but the problem is perceived as having the support in the wrong places.

In many North American universities, this support is often concentrated in Continuing Studies, because, historically, this is the unit that has supported distance and fully online learning. Now that support is needed for on-campus activities. However, the units supporting fully online courses and programs are usually themselves over-stretched, just managing the fully online courses.

Although it is important eventually to align support to where it is most needed, the problem should not be seen as an organizational issue but as a resource issue: there is just not enough existing resources going into academic support to cope with an expansion into blended learning.

The scaling issue

This is the main reason for my lying awake at night. Institutions are already spending a good deal to support just the fully online courses or programs. We have good models here based on instructional designers and media specialists working in a team with instructors in developing fully online courses. This way, the special design requirements for students studying off campus can be met.

However, at the moment, fully online courses constitute somewhere around 10-15% of all the credit-based teaching in North American universities. What happens when we go to 85% or more of the teaching being blended? The current learning technology support model just won’t be able to handle this expansion, certainly not at the rate that it is being predicted. However, without a design strategy for blended learning, and adequate support for faculty and instructors, it is almost certain that the quality will be poor, and it is certain that all the potential benefits of blended learning for transforming the quality of teaching will not be achieved.

Trying to extend the support system from fully online to blended courses and programs will ultimately be unsustainable. Although support units will be essential to get blended learning successfully started, teaching activities must be economically sustainable, which means faculty and instructors will eventually need to become able to design and manage blended learning effectively without continuous and ongoing support from instructional designers and media producers. This will require a huge training and retraining effort for instructors.

Possible solutions

As always, identifying a challenge is much easier than resolving it. But here are some suggestions (please suggest others):

  • Develop an institutional strategy for teaching and learning. Give priority in terms of resources and support to those academic areas ready and wanting to move into innovative teaching, in whatever mode it takes.
  • Identify additional resources for a move to innovative teaching, in the form of extra instructional designers, media producers and release time for faculty for initial course design and development. (This is a good indicator of just how serious the institution is about changing teaching). This will provide a core of support to get things going in an effective manner.
  • Give priority to supporting innovative blended learning designs, where the course is re-designed with a clear rationale for what is being done online and what face-to-face.
  • In particular give priority to supporting academic programs that have a clear strategy for blended and online learning and how it will be delivered across the program
  • Encourage innovation in blended learning design, but ensure that it is properly evaluated and that there is a strategy, if the innovation is successful, for ensuring the design is more widely applied.
  • Don’t mess with successfully operating support units that already exist. If they were needed before for what they do, they are still needed for that. Set up new units to support the move to blended learning and locate them close to the academic departments where they will be needed. Build an institutional community of practice so that the different support units can learn from each other.
  • The most important suggestion of all: overhaul completely your faculty development and training. Start with an online or blended course on how to teach online or in a blended format. Make it mandatory for instructors getting institutional support for blended or online learning. Provide a teaching track for appointments, promotion and tenure to reward innovative teaching. Redesign the post-graduate experience to ensure that teaching methods and pedagogy are also covered as well as research expertise, and ensure a direct link between such courses and teaching appointments. Provide badges, certificates or post-graduate diplomas or degrees for instructors who can demonstrate they have taken courses on teaching in post-secondary education.
  • Give research into blended learning a high priority in the SSHRC; this is going to be the norm and we need to know what works and what doesn’t. In particular we need some good theory on the pedagogical differences between online and classroom teaching – not comparative research about which is best, but what each is uniquely suitable for within a particular subject discipline and teaching context.

Then you will be ready for blended learning.

Over to you

Do you share my concerns or am I just a nervous Nellie? Should we just leave everyone to work it out for themselves?

Alternatively, what do you think needs to be done to ensure that blended learning is introduced sustainably and with high quality?

Does your institution have a plan for dealing with the move to blended learning? Is it a good plan?