January 26, 2015

My five wishes for online learning in 2015

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Image: © greatinternational students.blogspot.com, 2013

Image: © greatinternational students.blogspot.com, 2013

Predictions, schmedictions. No-one can guess the future but we can at least say what we would like to see. So here are my five wishes for 2015, with a guess at the odds of them happening.

1. Open textbooks.

My wish: faculty will start adopting open textbooks on a large scale in 2015. This is probably the easiest and best way to bring down the cost of education for students.

BC’s open textbook project should be in full swing in 2015, with the top 40 subject topics/disciplines covered with at least one text book per topic by the end of 2015. These topics cover both university and college programs, including apprenticeship and trades training (got to get those pipe fitters and welders  for LNG). All these books will have been peer reviewed by BC faculty.

These open textbooks will of course be available not only to BC institutions but any institution in the world that wants to use them. It will be fascinating to see who actually adopts these books. We could have the ridiculous situation where everyone else BUT BC universities and colleges are using them.

I have to declare an interest here, though. My own open textbook for faculty, teachers and instructors, Teaching in a Digital Age, will also be available. Already I know of at least three institutions already using it as a set book for courses, and it’s only two-thirds finished.

So my prediction:

  • the chance of  every one of the BC open textbooks being used in at least one institution world wide by the end of 2015: 99%
  • the chance of every BC public post-secondary institution using at least one of the open textbooks by 2015: 5%
  • I’ll be happy with at least 50% of Canadian post-secondary institutions using at least one open textbook in 2015. Open textbooks will then start to take off.

2. Open educational resources

My wish: faculty in each province or state will develop agreed province wide curricula for OERs. This may seem an odd wish, but what I see happening, at least in some Canadian provinces, is a huge amount of duplication of OER production, and on the other hand, very little cross-institutional adoption.

Let’s take an example: statistics. This is a subject often taught badly (sorry, where students often have difficulties) that crosses many subject disciplines: math, physics, psychology, sociology, biology, epidemiology, engineering, etc. So what are some institutions doing: developing core modules that can be shared within the institution across departments. So far, so good. But then it stops there.

Now at least in BC we have subject articulation committees that do a good job working out transfer agreements etc. Why not set up articulation committees for OERs? Instead of investing in new OERs in each institution, why not pool resources and either find existing or develop really good new OERs that combined would make up a sensible curriculum in statistics that can be shared by institutions across the system? Get people from stats departments in all the partnering institutions to work on it so they are more likely then to use the OERs themselves. (No, it doesn’t have to be every institution – just those that can work together.) No new money is needed for this as the money would have been spent anyway in developing online materials or courses.

The chances of this happening:

  • in at least one province: 50%

3. A brand new Canadian digital college

My wish: a new ‘green-field’, designed and built from scratch, institution that is conceived around the idea of digitally-based education designed to meet the learning needs of a digital age.

It’s been a long time since we’ve had a really new type of post-secondary institution in Canada: Tech University of BC (died in 2003); Ryerson University (2001); UOIT (2002); Royal Roads University (1995) Any suggestions for the last one?

A lot has happened in the last 20 years. Do we need such fixed battleships as campus-based institutions when what is really needed are fast destroyers? If you can swallow the premise that at least half of all studying within the next five years will be done online, even at the most traditional campus-based institution, what would a new college built around the idea of digital education look like? Emily Carr University of Art and Design should certainly be thinking about this as it moves to new premises in Vancouver in 2017. However, it is focusing on raising huge amounts of money for – yes, a new campus.

Now what if the government said: we will increase your annual operating budget by say 5-10 per cent if you can reduce the capital budget (once off) by 50 per cent? (Some creative accountancy needed here, of course, but hey, this is Canada). Or what if we took a green field site and looked for proposals based on that formula? What would learning spaces look like on such a campus? What would the learning look like? Where and how would students study? What kind of instructors or teachers would be needed? What kind of programs and delivery methods will make sense in 30 to 50 years time? It’s about time we created institutions that will be fit for the 22nd century and they need to be designed from scratch, using what we know today about media, technology and learning.

The chances of this happening (the commitment) in 2015:

  • in Alberta; 30%
  • in BC: 20%
  • in Ontario: 5%

4. A national research and development centre on digital education

My wish: a national research and development centre on digital education

In Canada, the Federal government has no jurisdiction over education: that is a provincial responsibility (and thank goodness for that – we get more innovation and diversity in a decentralised system)). However the Federal government does have responsibility for research and development. Now if you think, like I do, that Canada overall doesn’t do a bad job in developing and applying innovative approaches to teaching and learning (cMOOCs, anyone?), and that the future lies in effective digitally-based learning, it might be a strategic priority to ensure that Canada remains/becomes a world leader in this area.

At the moment though, there is hardly any sustainable research or development centre in online or digital education in this country (with all due respect to CIDER, which does a fantastic job with almost no resources – see what I mean?) Now you can build a hockey arena for $20 million and still  not get an NHL team, so why not put $100 million over five years into a world class research and development centre equivalent to say the Triumf project (particle physics) which got $222 million over five years in 2014.

This would have to be done right, though. No micro-managing from Ottawa, please. Write good terms of reference, hire good people, throw the money over the wall, and review the program after four years. Locate it preferably where innovation is happening (Atlantic Canada – Memorial University would be good – or the West – anywhere west of Kenora).

Here’s what I would like to see in its terms of reference:

  • develop, in conjunction with Stats Canada, an annual national survey of online and other forms of digital learning in post-secondary (and possibly k-12) education, similar to the Babson survey or even better the US Dept of Education IPEDs report
  • set up a joint advisory or governing board that includes representatives from related Canadian industry (e.g. Desire2Learn, Hootesuite), as well experts in online and digital education
  • spend as much on development as on basic research (most of which would be contracted out, following a research and development agenda developed through national, online consultation);
  • set some clear ‘deliverables’, such as regular reliable data and information on new innovations in Canadian digital education, new software or apps that become self-sustainable, testing and guidelines for faculty on emerging technologies, and above all successful, tested and evaluated design models for digital education
  • use the UK JISC as a model in terms of organisation (minimal central organization, networked and outsourced R&D).
  • hire me as Director (no, just kidding – I’m retired – really).

The chances of this happening in 2015:

  • with me as Director: 0.001%
  • without me as Director: 0.002%

5. Online International Students Canada (MOOCs for credit)

My wish: An online university preparation program for international students. This is a very simple idea. Offer free online programs for high school students anywhere in the world. The students with the best grades in the online program get automatic admission to a Canadian university and grants from the Canadian government to come to Canada and study, with half the time in Canada and the rest studying online from their home country. Target: 20,000 students a year. Total cost: $100 million a year (roughly).

There are literally millions of students who would probably qualify for a Canadian university, given the chance, but can’t afford either the education needed to reach the qualifications or the cost of coming to Canada. This program would offer online courses for the equivalent of the last year of high school in Canada, to enable international students to get the grades needed for entry to a Canadian university. The online courses would be offered free, but students would pay a small fee to take the online examinations, most of which would be computer graded.

The main costs in the program would be administrative (marketing, building a web site, finding existing online high school courses, and setting up the examination system), plus the real costs of travel for successful students and living and tuition costs while in Canada.

The advantages of the plan:

  • opens access to at least some low income or poor people in developing country who have access to some form of Internet access
  • simple to administer (the most difficult part will be getting Canadian universities to participate, even though there will be no direct cost)
  • real costs are lowered by students living at least half the time in their own country
  • students are more likely to remain in their home country after graduation and help build their own nation
  • Canadian universities would get some of the best students from developing countries at no or little direct cost
  • possibilities of stronger trading relations with emerging economies as a result.

The program would be funded by Foreign Affairs Canada (the former CIDA branch) and managed by the AUCC.

The chances of this happening in 2015:

  • 10% (well, it is an election year).

And your wishes for 2015?

Let me know what you would like to see in online learning in 2015 – and whether my ideas are as dumb as they look at first glance.

Students as a criterion for media selection in online learning

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The Malaysian Ministry of Education announced that it will enable students to bring handphones to schools under strict guidelines Image: © NewStraightsTimes, 2015

The Malaysian Ministry of Education announced in 2012 that it will enable students to bring handphones to schools under strict guidelines
Image: © NewStraightsTimes, 2012

Decisions are being made every day by government, institutions, teachers and students about technology use in education. How are these decisions made? What criteria are used?

In my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, I am suggesting using the SECTIONS model for media selection based on an examination of the following criteria:

  • tudents
  • E ase of use
  • osts
  • eaching functions
  • I nteraction
  • rganisational issues and Open-ness
  • etworking and Novelty
  • peed and Security.

Here is my first draft on questions about students and their needs:

At least three issues related to students need to be considered when choosing media and technology:

  • student demographics;
  • access; and
  • differences in how students learn.

Student demographics

One of the fundamental changes resulting from mass higher education is that university and college teachers must now teach an increasingly diverse range of students. This increasing diversity of students presents major challenges for post-secondary teachers. It requires that courses should be developed with a wide variety of approaches and ways to learn if all students in the course are to be taught well.

In particular, it is important to be clear about the needs of the target group. First and second year students straight from high school are likely to require more support and help studying at a university or college level. They are likely to be less independent as learners, and therefore it may be dangerous to expect them to be able to study entirely through the use of technology. However, technology may be useful as a support for classroom teaching, especially if it provides an alternative approach to learning from the face-to-face teaching, and is gradually introduced, to prepare them for more independent study later in a program.

On the other hand, for students who have already been through higher education as a campus student, but are now in the workforce, a program delivered entirely by technology at a distance is likely to be attractive. Such students will have already developed successful study skills, will have their own community and family life, and will welcome the flexibility of studying this way.

Third and fourth year undergraduate students may appreciate a mix of classroom-based and online study or even one or two fully online courses, especially if some of their face-to-face classes are closed to further enrolments, or if students are working part-time to help cover some of the costs of being at college.

Lastly, within any single class or group of learners, there will be a wide range of differences in prior knowledge, language skills, and preferred study styles. The intelligent use of media and technology can help accommodate these differences. This will be discussed further below (Section 9.2.3).


Of all the criteria in determining choice of technology, this is perhaps the most discriminating. No matter how powerful in educational terms a particular medium or technology may be, if students cannot access it in a convenient and affordable manner they cannot learn from it. Thus you may believe that video streaming is the best way to get your great lectures to students off campus, but if they do not have Internet access at home, or if it takes four hours to download, then forget it. (This is a particular weakness in the argument for using xMOOCs in developing countries. Even if potential learners have Internet or mobile phone access, which 5 billion still don’t, it often costs a day’s wages to download a single YouTube video – see Marron, Missen and Greenberg, 2014).

If you are intending to use computers, tablets or mobile phones for students, then you need answers to a number of questions.

  • What is your or your department’s policy with regard to students’ access to a computer, tablets or mobile phones?
  • Can they use any device or is there a limited list of devices that the institution will support?
  • Is the medium or software you are using compatible with all makes of mobile phones?
  • Is the network adequate to support any extra students your class might add?
  • Who else in the institution needs to know that you are requiring students to use particular devices?

If students are expected to provide their own devices (which increasingly makes sense),

  • what kind of device do they need: one at home with Internet access or a portable that they can bring on to campus – or one that can be used both at home and on campus?
  • What kind of applications will they need to run on their device(s) for study purposes?
  • Will they be able to use the same device(s) across all courses, or will they need different software/apps and devices for different courses?
  • What software skills will students need?
  • Will they need to know how to use a particular software before taking a course, or will they be taught this during the course?

Students (as well as the instructor) need to know the answers to these questions before they enrol in a course or program. In order to answer these questions, you and your department must know what students will use their devices for. There is no point in requiring students to go to the expense of purchasing a laptop computer if the work they are required to do on it is optional or trivial. This means some advance planning on your part.

  • What are the educational advantages that you see in student use of a particular device?
  • What will students need to do on the device in your course?
  • Is it really essential for them to use a device in these ways, or could they easily manage without the device?
  • What technology skills will they need, and will most students have these skills?
  • If students do not have the skills, would it still be worth their learning them, and will there be time set aside in the course for them to learn these skills?

It will really help if your institution has good policies in place for student technology access (see Section 9.7 below). If the institution doesn’t have clear policies or infrastructure for supporting the technologies you want to use, then your job is going to be a lot harder.

The answer to the question of access and the choice of technology will also depend somewhat on the mandate of the institution and your personal educational goals. For instance, highly selective universities can require students to use particular devices, and can help the relatively few students who have financial difficulties in purchasing and using specified devices. If though the mandate of the institution is to reach learners denied access to conventional institutions, equity groups, the unemployed, the working poor, or workers needing up-grading or more advanced education and training, then it becomes critical to find out what technology they have access to or are willing to use.

For instance, the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal conducted a study on how best to improve the communication of health information and education for ‘hard to reach’ patients. These were defined as patients or clients with low levels of literacy, those who face language and cultural barriers, and those who have difficulties processing information because of physical or cognitive disabilities. The study found that most of these patients do not, and do not want to, use computers, even though many Canadian hospitals and health care centers are increasingly relying on computer-mediated information systems for patients (Centre for Literacy, 2001). If an institution’s policy is open access to anyone who wants to take its courses, the availability of equipment already in the home (usually purchased for entertainment purposes) becomes of paramount importance.

If students do not already have personal access to specific technologies, alternatives are to provide the necessary equipment on campus, or through access at local community centres or the workplace. However, the use of local centres may limit another important factor with regard to access, and that is flexibility. If students have to travel to a local centre, or if the centre is open only at certain times, then this will reduce flexibility and increase the barriers to learning. Also, costs can escalate rapidly if the institution has to provide hardware and software for students.

Another important factor to consider is access for student with disabilities. This may mean providing textual or audio options for deaf and visually impaired students respectively. Fortunately there are now well established practices and standards under the general heading of Universal Design standards. Universal Design is defined as follows:

Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, refers to the deliberate design of instruction to meet the needs of a diverse mix of learners. Universally designed courses attempt to meet all learners’ needs by incorporating multiple means of imparting information and flexible methods of assessing learning. UDL also includes multiple means of engaging or tapping into learners’ interests. Universally designed courses are not designed with any one particular group of students with a disability in mind, but rather are designed to address the learning needs of a wide-ranging group.

Brokop, F. (2008)

Most institutions with a centre for supporting teaching and learning will be able to provide assistance to faculty to ensure the course meets universal design standards.  A good guide is available here.

Student differences with respect to learning with technologies

It may seem obvious that different students will have different preferences for different kinds of technology or media. The design of teaching would cater for these differences. Thus if students are ‘visual’ learners, they would be provided with diagrams and illustrations. If they are auditory learners, they will prefer lectures and podcasts. It might appear then that identifying dominant learning styles should then provide strong criteria for media and technology selection. However, it is not as simple as that.

McLoughlin (1999), in a thoughtful review of the implications of the research literature on learning styles for the design of instructional material, concluded that instruction could be designed to accommodate differences in both cognitive-perceptual learning styles and Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning cycle. In a study of new intakes conducted over several years at the University of Missouri-Columbia, using the Myers-Briggs inventory, Schroeder (1993) found that new students think concretely, and are uncomfortable with abstract ideas and ambiguity.

However, a major function of a university education is to develop skills of abstract thinking, and to help students deal with complexity and uncertainty. Perry (1984) found that learning in higher education is a developmental process. It is not surprising then that many students enter college or university without such ‘academic’ skills. Indeed, there are major problems in trying to apply learning styles and other methods of classifying learner differences to media and technology selection and use. Laurillard (2001) makes the point that looking at learning styles in the abstract is not helpful. Learning has to be looked at in context. Thinking skills in one subject area do not necessarily transfer well to another subject area. There are ways of thinking that are specific to different subject areas. Thus logical-rational thinkers in science do not necessarily make thoughtful husbands, or good literary critics.

Part of a university education is to understand and possibly challenge predominant modes of thinking in a subject area. While learner-centered teaching is important, students need to understand the inherent logic, standards, and values of a subject area. They also need to be challenged, and encouraged to think outside the box. This may clash with their preferred learning style. Indeed, the research on the effectiveness of matching instructional method to learning styles is at best equivocal. For instance, Dziuban et al. (2000), at the University of Central Florida, applied Long’s reactive behavior analysis of learning styles to students in both face-to-face classes and Web-based online classes. They found that learning style does not appear to be a predictor of who withdraws from online courses, nor were independent learners likely to do better online than other kinds of learners.

The limitations of learning styles as a guide to designing courses does not mean we should ignore student differences, and we should certainly start from where the student is. In particular, at a university level we need strategies to gradually move students from concrete learning based on personal experience to abstract, reflective learning that can then be applied to new contexts and situations. We shall see in Section 9.5 that technology can be particularly helpful for that.

Thus when designing courses, it is important to offer a range of options for student learning within the same course. One way to do this is to make sure that a course is well structured, with relevant ‘core’ information easily available to all students, but also to make sure that there are opportunities for students to seek out new or different content. This content should be available in a variety of media such as text, diagrams, and video, with concrete examples explicitly related to underlying principles. We shall see in Chapter 10 that the increasing availability of open educational resources makes the provision of this ‘richness’ of possible content much more viable.

Similarly, technology enables a range of learner activities to be made available, such as researching readings on the Web, online discussion forums, synchronous presentations, assessment through e-portfolios, and online group work. The range of activities increases the likelihood that a variety of learner preferences are being met, and also encourages learners to involve themselves in activities and approaches to learning where they may initially feel less comfortable. Such approaches to design are more likely to be effective than courses in multiple versions developed to meet different learning styles. In any case developing multiple versions of courses for different styles of learner is likely to be impractical in most cases. So avoid trying to match different media to different learning styles but instead ensure that students have a wide range of media (text, audio, video, computing) within a course or program.

Lastly, one should be careful in the assumptions made about student preferences for learning through digital technologies. On the one hand, technology ‘boosters’ such as Mark Prensky and Don Tapscott argue that today’s ‘digital natives’ are different from previous generations of students. They argue that todays students live within a networked digital universe and therefore expect their learning also to be all digitally networked. It is also true that professors in particular tend to underestimate students’ access to advanced technologies (professors are often late adopters of new technology), so you should always try to find up-to-date information on what devices and technologies students are currently using, if you can.

On the other hand, it is also dangerous to assume that all students are highly ‘digital literate’ and are demanding that new technologies should be used in teaching. Jones and Shao (2011) conducted a thorough review of the literature on ‘digital natives’, with over 200 appropriate references, including surveys of relevant publications from countries in Europe, Asia, North America, Australia and South Africa. They concluded that:

  • students vary widely in their use and knowledge of digital media
  • the gap between students and their teachers in terms of digital literacy is not fixed, nor is the gulf so large that it cannot be bridged
  • there is little evidence that students enter university with demands for new technologies that teachers and universities cannot meet;
  • students will respond positively to changes in teaching and learning strategies that include the use of new technologies that are well conceived, well explained and properly embedded in courses and degree programmes. However there is no evidence of a pent-up demand amongst students for changes in pedagogy or of a demand for greater collaboration;
  • the development of university infrastructure, technology policies and teaching objectives should be choices about the kinds of provision that the university wishes to make and not a response to general statements about what a new generation of students are demanding;
  • the evidence indicates that young students do not form a generational cohort and they do not express consistent or generationally organised demands.

Graduating students that have been interviewed about learning technologies at the University of British Columbia made it clear that they will be happy to use technology for learning so long as it contributes to their success (in the words of one student, ‘if it will get me better grades’) but the students also made it clear that it was the instructor’s responsibility to decide what technology was best for their studies.

It is also important to pay attention to what Jones and Shao are not saying. They are not saying that social media, personal learning environments, or collaborative learning are inappropriate, nor that the needs of students and the workforce are unchanging or unimportant, but the use of these tools or approaches should be driven by a holistic look at the needs of all students, the needs of the subject area, and the learning goals relevant to a digital age, and not by an erroneous view of what a particular generation of students are demanding.

In summary, one great advantage of the intelligent application of technology to teaching is that it provides opportunities for students to learn in a variety of ways, thus adapting the teaching more easily to student differences. Thus, the first step in media selection is to know your students, their similarities and differences, what technologies they already have access to, and what digital skills they already possess or lack that may be relevant for your courses. This is likely to require the use of a wide range of media within the teaching.


Brokop, F. (2008) Accessibility to E-Learning for Persons With Disabilities: Strategies, Guidelines, and Standards Edmonton AB: NorQuest College/eCampus Alberta

Centre for Literacy of Québec (2001) Needs assessment of the health education and information needs of hard-to-reach patients Montréal: Centre for Literacy of Québec

Dziuban, C. et al. (2000) Reactive behavior patterns go online  The Journal of Staff, Program and Organizational Development, Vol. 17, No.3

Jones, C. and Shao, B. (2011) The Net Generation and Digital Natives: Implications for Higher Education Milton Keynes: Open University/Higher Education Academy

Kolb. D. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall

Laurillard, D. (2001) Rethinking University Teaching: A Conversational Framework for the Effective Use of Learning Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Marron, D. Missen, C. and Greenberg, J. (2014) “Lo-Fi to Hi-Fi”: A New Way of Conceptualizing Metadata in Underserved Areas with the eGranary Digital Library Austin TX: International Conference on Dublin Core and Metadata Applications

McCoughlin, C. (1999) The implictions of the research literature on learning styles for the design of instructional material Australian Journal of Educational Technology, Vol. 15, No. 3

Perry, W. (1970) Forms of intellectual development and ethical development in the college years: a scheme New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston

Prensky, M. (2001) ‘Digital natives, Digital Immigrants’ On the Horizon Vol. 9, No. 5

Schroeder, C. (1993) New students – new learning styles, Change, Sept.-Oct


As always, feedback will be much appreciated. In particular:

  1. It seems obvious that students should be the first consideration in any educational decision. However, apart from student access to technology, student differences do not seem to me to be a very strong determinant of media choice, because there is so much variability in their needs. Do you agree?
  2. Linked to this, where do you stand on learning styles and media selection? You see I have been cautious about this and have fallen back on a general statement of ensuring a wide mix of media within a course. What are your views on this?
  3. One of the great benefits of the Internet is that it enables/includes nearly all media (text, audio, video, computing) – so do we really need a decision model? If we do, why?
  4. Any other comments, suggestions about appropriate graphics or video to illustrate this section, or examples of how you make decisions about choice of media, will be welcomed.


Ease of use and costs as criteria.

Review of ‘Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda.’

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Drop-out: the elephant in the DE room that no-one wants to talk about

Drop-out: the elephant in the DE room that no-one wants to talk about

Zawacki-Richter, O. and Anderson, T. (eds.) (2014) Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda Athabasca AB: AU Press, pp. 508

It is somewhat daunting to review a book of over 500 pages of research on any topic. I doubt if few other than the editors are likely to read this book from cover to cover. It is more likely to be kept on one’s bookshelf (if these still exist in a digital age) for reference whenever needed. Nevertheless, this is an important work that anyone working in online learning needs to be aware of, so I will do my best to cover it as comprehensively as I can.

Structure of the book

The book is a collection of about 20 chapters by a variety of different authors (more on the choice of authors later). Based on a Delphi study and analysis of ‘key research journals’ in the field, the editors have organized the topic into three sections, with a set of chapters on each sub-section, as follows:

1. Macro-level research: distance education systems and theories

  • access, equity and ethics
  • globalization and cross-cultural issues
  • distance teaching systems and institutions
  • theories and models
  • research methods and knowledge transfer

2. Meso-level research: management, organization and technology

  • management and organization
  • costs and benefits
  • educational technology
  • innovation and change
  • professional development and faculty support
  • learner support services
  • quality assurance

3. Micro-level: teaching and learning in distance education

  • instructional/learning design
  • interaction and communication
  • learner characteristics.

In addition, there is a very useful preface from Otto Peters, an introductory chapter by the editors where they justify their structural organization of research, and a short conclusion that calls for a systematic research agenda in online distance education research.

More importantly, perhaps, Terry Anderson and Olaf Zawacki-Richter demonstrate empirically that research in this field has been skewed towards micro-level research (about half of all publications).  Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly given its importance, costs and benefits of online distance education is the least researched area.

What I liked

It is somewhat invidious to pick out particular chapters, because different people will have different interests from such a wide-ranging list of topics. I have tended to choose those that I found were new and/or particularly enlightening for me, but other readers’ choices will be different. However, by selecting a few excellent chapters, I hope to give some idea of the quality of the book.

1. The structuring/organization of research

Anderson and Zawacki-Richter have done an excellent job in providing a structural framework for research in this field. This will be useful both for those teaching about online and distance education but in particular for potential Ph.D. students wondering what to study. This book will provide an essential starting point.

2. Summary of the issues in each area of research

Again, the editors have done an excellent job in their introductory chapter in summarizing the content of each of the chapters that follows, and in so doing pulling out the key themes and issues within each area of research. This alone makes the book worthwhile.

3. Globalization, Culture and Online Distance Education

Charlotte (Lani) Gunawardena of the University of New Mexico has written the most comprehensive and deep analysis of this issue that I have seen, and it is an area in which I have a great deal of interest, since most of the online teaching I have done has been with students from around the world and sometimes multi-lingual.

After a general discussion of the issue of globalization and education, she reviews research in the following areas:

  • diverse educational expectations
  • learners and preferred ways of learning
  • socio-cultural environment and online interaction
  • help-seeking behaviours
  • silence
  • language learning
  • researching culture and online distance learning

This chapter should be required reading for anyone contemplating teaching online.

4. Quality assurance in Online Distance Education

I picked this chapter by Colin Latchem because he is so deeply expert in this field that he is able to make what can be a numbingly boring but immensely important topic a fun read, while at the same time ending with some critical questions about quality assurance. In particular Latchem looks at QA from the following perspectives:

  • definitions of quality
  • accreditation
  • online distance education vs campus-based teaching
  • quality standards
  • transnational online distance education
  • open educational resources
  • costs of QA
  • is online distance education yet good enough?
  • an outcomes approach to QA.

This chapter definitely showcases a master at the top of his game.

5. The elephant in the room: student drop-out

This is a wonderfully funny but ultimately serious argument between Ormond Simpson and Alan Woodley about the elephant in the distance education room that no-one wants to mention. Here they start poking the elephant with some sticks (which they note is not likely to be a career-enhancing move.) The basic argument is that institutions should and could do more to reduce drop-out/increase course completion. This chapter also stunned me with providing hard data about really low completion rates for most open university students. I couldn’t help comparing these with the high completion rates for online credit courses at dual-mode (campus-based) institutions, at least in Canada (which of course are not ‘open’ institutions in that students must have good high school qualifications.)

Woodley’s solution to reducing drop-out is quite interesting (and later well argued):

  • make it harder to get in
  • make it harder to get out

In both cases, really practical and not too costly solutions are offered that nevertheless are consistent with open access and high quality teaching.

In summary

The book contains a number of really good chapters that lay out the issues in researching online distance education.

What I disliked

I have to say that I groaned when I first saw the list of contributors. The same old, same old list of distance education experts with a heavy bias towards open universities. Sure, they are nearly all well-seasoned experts, and there’s nothing wrong with that per se (after all, I see myself as one of them.)

But where are the young researchers here, and especially the researchers in open educational resources, MOOCs, social media applications in online learning, and above all researchers from the many campus-based universities now mainstreaming online learning? There is almost nothing in the book about research into blended learning, and flipped classrooms are not even mentioned. OK, the book is about online distance learning but the barriers or distinctions are coming down with a vengeance. This book will never reach those who most need it, the many campus-based instructors now venturing for the first time into online learning in one way or another. They don’t see themselves as primarily distance educators.

And a few of the articles were more like lessons in history than an up-to-date review of research in the field. Readers of this blog will know that I strongly value the history of educational technology and distance learning. But these lessons need to be embedded in the here and now. In particular, the lessons need to be spelled out. It is not enough to know that Stanford University researchers as long ago as 1974 were researching the costs and benefits of educational broadcasting in developing countries, but what lessons does this have for some of the outrageous claims being made about MOOCs? A great deal in fact, but this needs explaining in the context of MOOCs today.

Also the book is solely focused on post-secondary university education. Where is the research on online distance education in the k-12/school sector or the two-year college/vocational sector? Maybe they are topics for other books, but this is where the real gap exists in research publications in online learning.

Lastly, although the book is reasonably priced for its size (C$40), and is available as an e-text as well as the fully printed version, what a pity it is not an open textbook that could then be up-dated and crowd-sourced over time.


This is essential reading for anyone who wants to take a professional, evidence-based approach to online learning (distance or otherwise). It will be particularly valuable for students wanting to do research in this area. The editors have done an incredibly good job of presenting a hugely diverse and scattered area in a clear and structured manner. Many of the chapters are gems of insight and knowledge in the field.

However, we have a huge challenge of knowledge transfer in this field. Repeatedly authors in the book lamented that many of the new entrants to online learning are woefully ignorant of the research previously done in this field. We need a better way to disseminate this research than a 500 page printed text that only those already expert in the field are likely to access. On the other hand, the book does provide a strong foundation from which to find better ways to disseminate this knowledge. Knowledge dissemination in a digital world then is where the research agenda for online learning needs to focus.


‘The Economist’ on online learning

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© The Economist, 2014

© The Economist, 2014

Insight (2014) The democratisation of learning The Economist, September 26

This is a well-balanced and well-researched article on online learning in post-secondary education, even if it is very U.S.-focused. Doesn’t say anything new, but it covers the right ground.

What I liked is that it places MOOCs within the broader context of what is happening in online learning. A nice article to give to faculty skeptical about online learning (especially if they are economists).

Instructional design, the academy and industry: a ‘blended’ event

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image © eLearning Industry Companies, 2013

image © eLearning Industry Companies, 2013

What: The Academy and Industry: Exploring Instructional Design Roles

In a professional discipline, sometimes there can be uneasy tensions between those in the Academy (i.e. professors and researchers) and those in industry. This collaborative event will attempt to highlight some of the tensions that exist in instructional design. How do I.D. practices and conditions differ in the Academy vs in the corporate sector? How important is it to keep up with current research? What value is placed on formal credentials, or practical experience? Join us in our discussion online, and attend the culminating panel session.

Who: CNIE (Canadian Network for Innovation) + CAID (Canadian Association of Instructional Designers – ACCP en français)

When and how: