September 2, 2015

Book review: A History of the Open University

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The image is of Robin Wilson, an OU math lecturer (and incidentally the son of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who helped create the OU). The floral shirt was de rigueur in the early 1970s (I had one myself).

The image is of Robin Wilson, an OU math lecturer (and incidentally the son of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who helped create the OU). The floral shirt was de rigueur in the early 1970s (I had a few myself).

Weinbren, D. (2105) The Open University: A History Manchester: Manchester University Press/The Open University, 274 pp + notes, £18.99, C$31.61, US$22.30 (paperback edition)

Why you should read this book

From the book cover:

This analysis of the Open University’s precedents, personalities, politics and pedagogies contextualises learners’ experiences and illuminates the change in the values of our society, our ideas about learning and our use of a variety of media.

Despite the florid writing in the publisher’s blurb, this is an accurate summary of the importance of this book, which should be read by anyone interested in open learning, distance learning, equality of access to higher education, changing pedagogies, the role of media in teaching and learning, the politics of creating radically new institutions of higher education, how higher education has changed in terms of value and purpose over the last 45 years, and, most important of all, how open learning can truly transform the lives of individuals.

What the book covers

The book is in four parts, which I will briefly summarise.

Part I: Creating a university of the air

This part covers the origins of the university within the socio-political context of Britain in the 1960s and early 1970s. It is a fascinating story in itself, of how a Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and Jennie Lee, his Under-Secretary of State in the Department of Education and Science, drove through their vision of a technocratic university for the masses, how the original vision was modified from a University of the Air to a multi-media university, and how the university survived a change of government which brought Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives to power in the year that the OU opened. This is mandatory reading for policy wonks interested in how to bring about radical change in higher education.

Chapter 1 provides a broad overview of the challenges, developments and successes of the university over its 45 years existence. For those without the time to read the whole book, this chapter provides a useful encapsulation of the main points covered later.

Chapter 2 provides a more detailed account of the creation of the university, covering the political, socio-economic, pedagogical, and media components. It should be noted that many commentators believe that the Open University was ‘the most original innovation in 20th century British higher education’ and a ‘national treasure.’ This chapter helps to explain why.

In this part of the book, Weinbren captures well the social and political conditions, and above all the idealism and philosophies, that underpinned the creation and establishment of the Open University.

Part II: The first two decades

It is one thing to create a new institution; it is quite another to make it work. Indeed, the author notes that other attempts at innovation in higher education, such as the UK Open Polytechnic and the OU e-University, failed dismally after being created.

This part looks in detail at the governance and administrative structures, the role of academics, tutors and counsellors, the pedagogical models, the use of media, and the regional structure.

Weinbren points out that the intention from the start was to develop a degree-granting university with the highest possible academic standards:

Jennie Lee was adamant that the OU should be comparable to other universities in terms of its academic standards, rather than merely representing an educational second chance for the marginalised.

One reason for the OU’s relatively quick acceptance by the rest of the UK higher education sector was the high quality of the course materials which were used extensively by professors (and students) in the other universities. Another reason was the widespread engagement of academics from other universities as tutors or external examiners, who were often initially surprised by the quality of work produced by OU students.

Weinbren addresses particularly well the challenges the OU faced in terms of scale and the need for learner support for students working alone all over the country. (The OU started on day one in 1971 with 25,000 students and has grown since to 150,000 undergraduates and 30,000 postgraduates in 2014, with almost as many taking non-credit courses or modules.)

Weinbren, like the OU itself, struggles with integrating the competing pedagogical philosophies of behaviourist approaches to the design and development of high quality, mass-produced, course materials, and  learner-centred approaches based on face-to-face tutorials and summer schools. Overall, though, he emphasises that the fundamental pedagogical approach of the OU is focused on students developing personal meaning through interaction not only with course materials but also with faculty/tutors and other students, both face-to-face and later online. He describes with clarity how the often changing and complex learner support systems worked.

This chapter also explains why the Conservatives under Mrs. Thatcher continued to support the OU, despite concerns from some Ministers and the national press about ‘Marxist bias’ in its publicly available materials (especially the broadcasts). Thatcher had little time for traditional universities and saw in the OU a chance for reforming and galvanising the higher education system, especially with regard to improved cost-effectiveness.

This chapter also discusses the rapid development and changes in the use of media at the OU, with broadcasting over time playing a less direct role in teaching, greater use of recorded media such as cassettes, and the development of home experiment kits for science and technology courses.

Part III: The OU since the 1990s

This part is much influenced by the many changes since 1990 in the overall higher education system in Britain, and the consequent attempts by the OU at adaptation and accommodation to such changes. The key change has been the shift from direct government funding for teaching and learning to funding largely through student fees supported by loans (the OU now relies almost entirely on student fees), and the attempt by governments (both Labour and Conservative) to introduce more competition between universities and a more ‘market-oriented’ approach. This has resulted in the OU being treated as just any other university by government, rather than the special and separate treatment it received in earlier years.

Also over the past 45 years, the whole HE sector in the UK has expanded rapidly, making access at least theoretically more open to a much higher proportion of the population. Another important development has been the increased use of online learning by conventional universities. Together these have eroded some of the unique differences and advantages of the OU over the rest of the system.

The OU has responded to these changes in a number of ways, including:

  • expanding its international reach, especially but not exclusively in the rest of Europe;
  • the development of continuing education courses and modules;
  • more diversification regionally to respond to national political devolution;
  • contracts with non-commercial agencies, such as the National Health Service, as well as commercial organisations
  • leading the charge to quality assurance processes;
  • moving increasingly to online learning, and in the process, reducing dramatically the high-cost summer schools and face-to-face tutorial support; and integrating the role of counsellors with that of tutors;
  • increased use of learner-centred and project-based learning;
  • creation of open educational resources, such as FutureLearn and BBC/OU programs aimed at the general public.

Although Weinbren does a good job of covering the increasingly diverse and wide-ranging activities of the OU in the years from 1990 to the present, the OU’s unique role and place in the UK HE system becomes inevitably more fuzzy and its future direction less clear. However, the same criticism could apply to the whole of the UK HE sector, which seems to be increasingly forced back to a highly selective and tiered system, by government policies based on a more commercialised and employer-focused view of higher education. The OU’s place in such a system is by no means clear.

Part IV: Half a century of learning

This is a truly wonderful chapter about the student experience at the OU and lets students speak in their own words. This chapter helps explain why the OU is such an iconic component of British culture, and why it is so loved by students and staff alike (it consistently comes out top in student satisfaction in annual surveys of British universities). More importantly, this chapter clearly demonstrates how the OU has changed millions of students lives for the better.

Weinbren looks at several aspects of the student experience. While the OU has a very broad mix of incomes and occupations, it has opened up higher education particularly to working class families, students with disabilities, prisoners, those without high school qualifications, and above all to women. In this sense it is a truly open university, offering not just opportunities but also qualifications and realistic chances of success for everyone.

Weinbren illustrates how important the OU has been to women, particularly in the early year of the OUs, in terms of personal development and increased self-esteem. The importance of summer schools for engaging students and making them feel part of a university community is particularly well described. I also read with great interest how the OU enabled both Republican and Loyalist prisoners in Northern Ireland ‘to develop political confidence and an understanding of methods other than violence’, some going on to become politicians following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Above all, this chapter provides an excellent antidote to the current market-oriented and functional philosophy of higher education now so prevalent in Britain and elsewhere. If you can read only one chapter, this is the one.

Personal reflections on the book

The OU was a very important part of my life for 20 years. I was one of the first staff appointed in 1969, and I ended up doing at one time or another research and evaluation into the educational effectiveness of different media (including the BBC television and radio programs), designing and writing course units, marking student assignments, directing summer schools, and attending endless meetings about policies, directions and the use of media. I left the OU in 1989, partly because I was frustrated that it wasn’t changing fast enough, particularly with regard to the use of online learning. It’s hard for me then to be objective in reviewing Weinbren’s book and even more so in assessing the contribution of the OU to higher education.

Nevertheless, the book captures wonderfully my lived experience of the OU, especially the student response. Weibren has blended together an impeccable range of resources, anecdotes, events and above all personal contributions from academics, staff and students at the OU into a well-written, captivating chronicle that reflects the spirit as well as the history of the OU.

There are criticisms, of course. At times, it becomes a hagiography of an institution (if that’s possible). Weinbren does describe the many criticisms of the OU, but always provides a contradictory positive contribution to offset each criticism. In particular, he could have been harsher about the OU’s increased bureaucracy and sclerosis as it has become older. True, there have been many innovations, for instance, in the use of technology, but changing its cumbersome and now outdated course development system has proved to be extremely difficult. Although it was one of the first institutions to adopt online learning, it has been a real struggle to make it a central rather than a peripheral part of the teaching system.

More importantly, Weinbren does not look into the future, yet there are surely lessons for the future from his book. The OU is facing an almost existential crisis, with many competitors, a very difficult financial situation, and massive changes and innovation going on elsewhere in the UK higher education system. What is the role of the OU in the 21st century? In what ways can it continue to provide a unique and valuable contribution? What teaching model will best meet the needs of its students in the 21st century? This is probably another book altogether, but Weinbren is particularly well placed to ask and address these issues. As I say to Ph.D. students, the conclusion is your chance to let rip and say what you really think now you have established your credentials. It’s a pity that Weinbren did not take this opportunity, but he has probably other means to let his views be known.

These though are minor caveats. Weinbren has undertaken an extremely challenging task and met the challenge superbly. I hope you will enjoy the book as much as I have. More importantly, there are very important lessons to be drawn from this book about the nature of university education, equity, and government policy toward higher education.

Conference: Distance teaching and learning, Wisconsin, 2015

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The Monona Terrace, Madison, Wisconsin

The Monona Terrace, Madison, Wisconsin

What: The University of Wisconsin Distance Teaching and Learning Conference

You will discover innovative ways to teach and support online learners. Learn best strategies, practices, and solutions. Connect with experts in online education and engage with e-learning colleagues from around the world.

When: August 11-13, 2015

Where: Monona Terrace, Madison, Wisconsin

Who: The conference is organized and sponsored by UW-Madison Continuing Studies’ Distance Education Professional Development (DEPD) team.

Keynote speakers

  • Marc Rosenberg
  • Mark Prensky
  • Sharon Derry and Susan Singer
  • Simone Conceçãio
  • Michael G. Moore

How:

  • Registration opens May 4
  • To register, click here

How much:

The conference fee will be US$495 for registration by July 31, $545 afterwards. reduced fee for students, groups

Online Fundamentals Conference Certificate

Designed for those new to online learning, this blended certificate entails pre- and post-conference work plus onsite conference activities. Get both the conference and certificate for only $850 ($1,200 value).

Comment

This has been the largest and longest running (30 years) distance education conference in the USA. It’s good to see Michael Moore is speaking. We worked together many years ago at the Open University in Britain and he has been a pioneer of distance education in the USA.

Adult learners, mobile phones and online learning

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The McArthur River Mine, Northern Saskatchewan

The McArthur River Mine, Northern Saskatchewan

Sometimes, distance education really is distant. Damian Boyle is a workplace instructor from Northlands College who works with itinerant workers at the remote McArthur River mine in Northern Saskatchewan. He has noticed a steep drop in the voluntary drop-in for adult education at the mine following recent local access to Wi-Fi and the Internet. He asked me a serious of questions I can’t answer. Here are his questions:

With regards to some aspects of m-learning by adults that are informal, unstructured, and perhaps accidental rather than purposeful: I work as a Workplace Educator for Northlands College, and provide learning services to about 1000 itinerant Workers at Cameco’s McArthur River Mine Site, in northern Saskatchewan. This is a fly-in site, with camp accommodations and no other community or services.  (Further details about my work are posted on EduNorth).

I am seeking ways to drive engagement by Workers with the Workplace Education Program. To that end I am here requesting your assistance for direction to resources, organizations, and individuals that may be able to provide some suggestions about how to best do this.

Since July of 2013 I have observed a steep decline in drop-in engagement with the Workplace Education Program on un-paid time (voluntary participation).  This decline in voluntary participation has been coincidental with the provision of cellular service and Wi-Fi internet access at the Site, plus the now ubiquitous (~95%) adoption of smartphones by workers.  Has your organization experienced similar trends?

1.    With regards to adult learners, what are the statistical trends for engagement with services for assistance with developing:  Literacy, Numeracy, Workplace Essential Skills, and Adult Basic Education?

2.    What percentage of those adult Learners seeking assistance with developing Literacy, Numeracy, Workplace Essential Skills, and Adult Basic Education, own or regularly use a Smartphone or Tablet?

Any direction, suggestions, recommendations, statistics, or thoughts that you could share with me about any of this would be most appreciated. Thanks very much for your assistance with this.

 I’m wondering if anyone can help, either by posting a comment to this post or sending Damian an e-mail at boyle.damian@northlandscollege.sk.ca.

 

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics: WCET’s analysis of distance education enrolments in the USA

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Out-of-state students 2

Russell Poulin and Terri Straut have done an invaluable analysis of recent data on distance education enrolments in the USA in the following three blog posts:

Straut, T. and Poulin, R. (2015) IPEDS Fall 2013: Higher Ed Sectors Vary Greatly in Distance Ed Enrollments Boulder CO: Western Co-operative for Educational Technologies

Straut, T. and Poulin, R. (2015) IPEDS Fall 2013: Distance Education Data Reveals More Than Overall Flat Growth Boulder CO: Western Co-operative for Educational Technologies

Straut, T. and Poulin, R. (2015) IPEDS Fall 2013: Less than Half of Fully Distant Students Come from Other States Boulder CO: Western Co-operative for Educational Technologies

These reports should be read in conjunction with these equally valuable posts:

Hill, P. and Poulin, R. (2014) Investigation of IPEDS Distance Education Data: System Not Ready for Modern Trends Boulder CO: Western Co-operative for Educational Technologies/e-Literate

Allen, I.E. and Seaman, J. (2013) Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States  Wellesley MA: Babson College/Quahog Research Group

I am pulling this together in this one post for convenience, but I strongly recommend that you read carefully the original reports.

There are serious methodological issues in the USA data

Over the last ten years or so, the most consistent analyses of enrolments in online learning have been the annual Babson College surveys conducted by Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, with support from the Sloan Foundation. However, this was a voluntary survey, based on a carefully drawn sample of chief academic officers across the USA. The Babson Surveys showed consistent growth of online course enrolments in the order of 10-20 per cent per annum over a the last 10 years, compared with around 2-3 per cent growth in on-campus enrolments, with in 2013 approximately one third of all higher education students in the USA taking at least one fully online course.

However, since the Babson surveys were voluntary, sample-based and dependent on the good will of participating institutions, there was always a concern about the reliability of the data, and especially that the returns might be somewhat biased towards enrolments from institutions actively engaged in online learning, thus suggesting more online enrolments than in reality. Despite these possible limitations the Babson Surveys were invaluable because they provided a comparable set of national data across several years. So while the actual numbers may be a little shaky, the trends were consistent.

Then in 2012 the U.S. Federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) survey, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the U.S. Federal Department of Education, for the first time included distance education in its compulsory annual survey of enrolments in higher education. (One might ask why it took until 2012 to ask for data on distance education, but hey, it’s a start.) Since this is a census rather than a survey, and since it is obligatory, one would expect that the IPEDS data would be more reliable than the Babson surveys.

However, it turns out that there are also major problems with the IPEDS survey. Phil Hill (of the blog e-Literate) and Russell Poulin have indicated the following limitations with IPEDS:

  • problems of definition: Babson focused only on students enrolled in fully online courses; IPEDS asks for enrolments in distance education. Although many institutions have moved their print-based courses online, there are still many print-based distance education courses still out there. How many? We don’t know. Also the IPEDS definition rules out reporting on blended or hybrid courses, and is not precise enough to ensure that different institutions don’t interpret who to include and who to exclude on a consistent basis
  • under-reporting: IPEDS collected data on the assumption that all students enrolled through continuing education departments were taking non-credit distance education courses, and therefore these enrolments were to be excluded. However, in many institutions, continuing education departments have continued to administer for-credit online courses, which institutions have seen as just another form of distance education. (In other institutions, distance education departments have been integrated with central learning technology units, and are thus included in enrolment counts.)
  • the IPEDS survey does not work for innovative programs such as those with continuous enrolments, competency-based learning, or hybrid courses.

Hill and Poulin come to the following conclusions about the 2012 survey:

  • we don’t know the numbers – there are too many flaws in the the data collection methods
  • thus the 2012 numbers are not a credible baseline for future comparisons
  • there are hundreds of thousands of students who have never been reported on any IPEDS survey that has ever been conducted.

It is against this background that we should now examine the recent analyses by Straut and Poulin on the IPEDS data for  2013. However, note their caveat:

Given the errors that we found in colleges reporting to IPEDS, the Fall 2012 distance education reported enrollments create a very unstable base for comparisons.

Main results for 2013

1. Most DE enrolments are in public universities

For those outside the USA, there are quite different types of HE institution, dependent on whether they are publicly funded or privately funded, and whether they operate for profit or not for profit. Distance education is often associated in the USA with diploma mills, or offered by for-profit private institutions, such as the University of Phoenix or Kaplan. As it turns out, this is a fundamental mis-conception. Nearly three-quarters of all DE enrolments are in publicly funded universities. Less than 10% of all DE enrolments are in for-profit private institutions.

2. Students studying exclusively at a distance

Students studying exclusively at a distance constitute about 13% of all enrolments. However, non-profits rely much more on distance students, who make up half their enrolments. Less than 10% of students in public universities are studying exclusively at a distance. The significance of this is that for most students in public universities, DE is a relatively small part of their studies, an option that they exercise occasionally and as needed, and is not seen as a replacement for campus-based studies. On the other hand, there is a substantial if small minority for whom DE is the only option, and for many of these, the for-profits are their the only option if their local public universities do not offer such programs in the discipline they want.

3. DE enrolments were down slightly in 2013

IPEDS shows an overall decrease in DE enrolments of 4% from 2012 to 2013. The biggest area was the for-profits, which declined by 17%. The drop in public universities for those taking fully online courses was a marginal 2%. However, this is a major difference from the trends identified by the Babson Surveys.

This is probably the most contentious of the conclusions, because the differences are relatively small and probably within the margin of error, given the unreliability of the data. The for-profit sector has been particularly badly hit by changes to federal financial aid for students.

However, I have been predicting that the rate of students taking fully online courses in the USA (and Canada) is likely to slow in the future for two reasons:

  • there is a limit to the market for fully online studies and after 10 years of fairly large gains, it is not surprising that the rate now appears to be slowing down
  • as more and more courses are offered in a hybrid mode, students have another option besides fully online for flexible study.

The counter trend is that public universities still have much more scope for increasing enrolments in fully online professional masters programs, as well as for certificates, diplomas and badges.

4. Students studying fully online are still more likely to opt for a local university

Just over half of all students enrolled exclusively in DE courses take their courses from within state. This figure jumps to between 75-90% for those enrolled in a public university. On the other hand, 70% of students enrolled in a DE course in a for-profit take their courses from out-of-state. This is not surprising, since although non-profits have to have their headquarters somewhere, they operate on a national basis.

The proportion of institutions reporting that they serve students who are outside the U.S. remains small, no more than 2% in any sector. This again may be a reporting anomaly, as 21% of institutions reported that they have students located outside the U.S. Probably of more concern is that many institutions did not report data on the location of their DE students. This may have something to do with the need for authorization for institutions to operate outside the home state, and this is a uniquely American can of worms that I don’t intend to open.

Not good, but it’s better than nothing

I have an uncomfortable feeling about the IPEDS data. It needs to be better, and it’s hard to draw any conclusions or make policy decisions on what we have seen so far.

However, it’s easy for someone outside the USA to criticise the IPEDS data, but at least it’s an attempt to measure what is an increasingly significant – and highly complex – area of higher education. We have nothing similar in Canada. At least the IPEDS data is likely to improve over time, as institutions press for clearer definitions, and are forced to collect better and more consistent data.

Also, I can’t praise too highly first of all Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman for their pioneering efforts to collect data in this area, and Phil Hill, Russell Poulin and Terri Straut for guiding us through the minefield of IPEDS data.

For a nice infographic on this topic from WCET, click on the image below:

WCET infographic 2

Choosing a ‘good’ post-secondary online learning program

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woman at computer 2

I am constantly asked to recommend ‘good’ online learning programs. This is a difficult question to answer, as it’s impossible for any single person to know all the good online programs, and in any case, any selection is going to be highly subjective. However, it is possible to suggest a set of criteria or questions to help you in your decision, if you are thinking of taking an online program.

Criteria for selection

1. What prior qualifications do I need in order to take this program? Although courses may be online, they are not necessarily open. Generally high school completion is the minimum level of qualification for admission for a college or university online program, or a bachelor’s degree for graduate programs, except for open universities (see below).

2. What is the general status of the offering institution, for example, is it an accredited school with a generally good reputation?

3. Experience in online learning: how long has it been offering online programs? Institutions, like people, get better with practice.

4. The size of the operation: does it have many online courses, whole online programs, and lots of online students? If it does it is likely to have good systems in place to support online learning. On the other hand, if it’s grown very rapidly, it may have cut corners on quality.

5. Does any tenured or full-time instructor have overall responsibility for the course or program? If not, it is likely to be primarily a money-making operation for the institution.

6. What is the instructor:student ratio? Will students be taught by full-time faculty, adjunct faculty or teaching assistants? (I have no problem with adjunct faculty, so long as they are well qualified academically and responsible to a full-time faculty member, but beware of courses taught online by teaching assistants or unqualified ‘tutors’.)  Do instructors or faculty receive any training in teaching online? (This is especially important for contract or adjunct instructors.)

7. Do you personally know anything about the program? Have you studied any of their online courses – or on-campus courses for that matter? Do you know the people managing the online program?

8. What do students think about the program? What’s the completion rate? (Well designed online courses should have a successful completion rate of above 80%, and for a whole program, more than half of those who start the program should complete it.)

9. How expensive is it? Can I afford it? Will I be eligible for grants or student loans if I take this program?

10. What can I do with the qualification? Can I transfer the credits from an online course into an on-campus program? Will the qualification be recognised by any appropriate professional or accrediting agency?

My recommendation to anyone considering an online course or program is to apply the above criteria to any course or program you are interested in. Any self-respecting institution should be able to answer these questions, through the program web site, or by your calling the office that supports the program. Getting answers to these ten questions is more likely to enable you to find the right course than any recommendation I may make about individual courses or programs.

Personal recommendations

Nevertheless, I’m willing to stick my neck out, based mainly on my personal knowledge, but caveat emptor: you are responsible for your own decisions, so don’t blame me if one of these recommendations doesn’t work out for you. And just because I haven’t mentioned a particular institution doesn’t mean that it has poor quality programs – there are too many good programs to list them all.

1. Publicly funded dual mode institutions

These are publicly funded and accredited institutions that offer both on-campus and distance teaching, and usually have done so for many years. Typical examples are the land grant universities in the USA, which were established originally with state-wide responsibilities, e.g. Penn State’s World Campus, the University of Wisconsin System eCampus, and the University of New Mexico Online. These online courses and programs carry exactly the same weight as their on-campus courses. In Canada, similar institutions would be Memorial University, Laval University (in French), the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Manitoba, and the University of British Columbia.

These universities usually use their own ‘on-campus’ faculty combined with professional support staff such as instructional designers experienced in online and distance learning, although they usually also hire contract or adjunct instructors to support the main faculty instructor.

In Mexico, the Universidad de Guadalajara has an excellent online program in Spanish through its Virtual Campus.

There are many others, too numerous to list all of them, so check your local state or province’s public universities and then ask the ten questions above, as not all ‘dual-mode’ institutions have moved quickly enough away from print-based to fully online, so check that the course or program you are interested in is available online.

However, in general, choosing an online program from any university in this category is probably your safest bet in terms of quality and value.

2. Publicly funded universities that have specialised in online or blended learning.

These are universities or colleges that did not have much prior history of distance education but have moved extensively into online learning, both in blended and fully online formats. The best example in the USA is the University of Central Florida, Another with a strong online program is Empire State College in the State University of New York system. In Canada, the University of Guelph, the University of Ottawa (English and French), Laurentian University (English and French) and Queen’s University in Ontario, and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, all have extensive online programs.

One of the largest online programs in the USA is the University of Maryland University College, which has many US servicemen as students. However, having been a guest tutor on some of their courses, I’m not particularly impressed with the overall quality, although some individual courses/programs are good.

In Canada, Royal Roads University in British Columbia offers a unique blended learning model consisting of one semester on campus and two or more semesters online, as well as some fully online programs, mainly at graduate level.

3. Publicly funded two-year community colleges

Many publicly funded community colleges in both the USA and Canada have excellent online programs. George Brown College and Algonquin College in Ontario have extensive online programs.

The Colorado Community College System offers a wide range of courses online, including science courses using home kits and remote labs. There are several other regional or state-wide online consortia in the USA, such as the Southern Regional Education Board’s Electronic Campus, covering 16 states.

Rio Salado Community College in Arizona has one of the largest online programs in the USA. However, there have been criticisms about the quality, because of its heavy reliance on short-term contract instructors who often lack training in online teaching. This is something to watch for in any institution that has suddenly and rapidly expanded its online programs.

3. Private, non-profit universities

The Western Governors University specializes in competency-based learning, which allows you to study at your own pace and take into account any prior learning or competencies, which means you may be able to complete a program more quickly. Usually programs are designed in consultation with major employers, ensuring acceptance of the degree. For more on the Western Governors model, click here.

The University of Southern New Hampshire has one of the largest online programs in the USA, and is also moving heavily into competency based learning.

Tec de Monterrey is a dual-mode private, non-profit university in Mexico that offers high quality online programs in Spanish.

4. Publicly funded open universities.

The best online is the Open University of Catalonia, in Spain, which was founded in 1996 as a purely online university. It offers several graduate programs in English, and many undergraduate as well as graduate programs in Spanish and Catalan. It accepts many international enrolments, particularly from Latin America.

Tèluq in Quebec offers high quality online programs in French.

The U.K. Open University and the Open University of the Netherlands are also leaders in online learning. The U.K. Open University consistently ranks in the top ten universities in the U.K. (out of over 180) in terms of teaching.

There are many other open universities around the world, some with hundreds of thousands of students (e.g. the Open University of China, Anadolu Open University in Turkey, the Open University in Indonesia, Indira Gandhi Open University in India, and the University of South Africa). However, because many students in these countries lack easy access to the Internet, most of these universities are still primarily print-based.

Indeed, most open universities have a heavy legacy of print-based education which has limited their ability to move completely online. I’m not currently recommending Athabasca University in Canada, because it’s future is uncertain, and many of its undergraduate programs are still print-based, although it has some excellent online graduate programs. The same applies to Thompson Rivers University’s Open Learning program in British Columbia.

Nevertheless, open universities offer many people their only chance of a higher education, especially in developing countries.

5. For-profit private universities

I hesitate to recommend for-profit institutions such as the University of Phoenix, or Kaplan, not because they don’t offer high quality online programs – they do – but because of ongoing problems with federal student aid and recognition of their degrees. For further discussion especially of the University of Phoenix, see ‘How does the University of Phoenix measure up?

6. MOOCs

If you are not looking for a qualification, but are just interested in a particular topic, there are many free, massive open online courses (MOOCs) available to you from many of the world’s leading universities. The following are the main platforms/sites where you can find such courses:

Open Education Europa provides a comprehensive list of MOOCs being offered by European institutions.

However, be warned: while certificates may be offered for successful course completion, these are not usually accepted by even the offering institutions towards a formal degree. However the OERu is building a free degree program on open educational resources.

7. General advice

It makes sense to take an online program from any local institution that you know well and trust. There are risks in taking online programs from out of state or out of country, unless the institution has an international reputation. There may also be language or cultural issues. It is particularly important that you get frequent and good quality interaction with an instructor on the program. Nevertheless the choice has never been so rich.

Over to you

There are many other universities and colleges offering excellent online programs, too many to number, but if you have experience of taking online programs and would like to make recommendations (positive or negative), please use the comment box below.

However, I will not publish any comments that are not offered in a thoughtful and constructive manner, and especially if they are being used solely to market (or trash) a particular program.

And any requests to list or mention the many commercial providers of online programs will be ignored.