September 30, 2014

Teaching assistants, adjunct faculty and online learning

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Lecture to hybridI am struggling these days with the issue of who should teach online courses, in terms of qualifications and status, and in particular, the issue of how to scale up credit-based online courses while maintaining or improving quality.

These questions are coming to the forefront because, through blended learning, practices that are common in face-to-face teaching come head to head with quite different practices in online learning.

What has made this an issue for me

Recently I’ve been involved in assessing proposals for funding for large-enrollment online credit courses. Most of the proposals have focused on using several/many teaching assistants working under a professor to provide the learning support. I’m also finding this model being increasingly used where institutions are moving to a hybrid model, combining both online and face-to-face components, especially where a former very large lecture-based course is being redesigned for hybrid learning. Even including the TAs, the instructor/student ratio is often 1:100 or higher for these large enrollment courses (in other words, the same ratio more or less as when the course was delivered solely through large lectures.) In the proposals, and in the reports I am receiving, there is usually no additional training for TAs about how to teach online, although in many – but by no means all – cases, they do get some kind of training in teaching face-to-face.

This is a problem for me, because I have always worked with a model for online courses where the instructor: student ratio has been under 40 for undergraduate courses, and under 30 for graduate courses. Scaling up has been handled by hiring on contract additional part-time adjunct or associate professors, either with a doctoral degree in the subject area, or with strongly related work experience. The adjuncts would be paid to take a short online briefing course on teaching online which sets out the expectations for online teaching. This was an affordable model because the additional student tuition fees would more than cover the cost of hiring additional contract instructors, once the course was developed.

However, this has been possible because most of the online courses I have been responsible for have been aimed mainly at higher level undergraduate students or graduate students. With both blended and online courses now being targeted at large first and second year classes, new models are being developed that I fear will not have the same level of quality as the ‘best practice’ online courses I have been working with.

Why this is not an easy issue for me

This is a particularly difficult issue for me to discuss for several reasons:

  • most of my experience is with fully online courses; when I have taught face-to-face, it’s usually been me on my own, and generally with relatively small groups of between 25 to 200 maximum
  • practices both for dealing with large face-to-face classes and with online classes vary considerably within each form of delivery, and from one institution to another, so making generalizations is fraught with danger
  • decisions about whether to use teaching assistants or part-time, contract instructors, are driven more by financial considerations than by best pedagogical practice, although institutions do their best to make it as effective educationally as possible once a model for TAs and/or adjuncts has been decided on
  • there are other factors at work besides money and pedagogy in the use of teaching assistants and adjunct faculty, such as the desire to provide financial support to international and graduate students, the idea of apprenticeship in teaching, and the supply and demand effects on the employment of doctoral graduates seeking a career in university teaching and research
  • there is no golden mean for instructor/student ratios in either blended or online learning. In the mainly quantitative/STEM subjects, much higher ratios are sustainable without the loss of quality, through the use of automated marking and feedback
  • MOOCs (rightly or wrongly) are giving the impression that it is possible to scale up even credit-based online learning at lower cost.

What follows then is tentative, and I’m ready to change my views especially on the evidence of others who have grappled with this issue.

My concern

My real concern is that the over-reliance on teaching assistants for online and blended courses will have three negative consequences for both students and online learning in general:

  • As with the large face-to-face classes, the pedagogy for online or blended courses will resort more to information transmission.
  • however, for the online or hybrid courses, student drop-out and dissatisfaction will increase because, especially in first and second year teaching, they will not get the learning support they need when studying online.  As a result, faculty and students will claim that online learning is inferior to classroom-based instruction
  • faculty will see online learning and blended learning being used by administrations to cut costs and over time to reduce the employment of tenured faculty, and will therefore try to block its implementation.

Why can’t TAs provide the support needed online if they can do this for face-to-face classes? First, I’m not sure they do provide adequate support for students in large first year classes, but I’m not in a position to judge. But in online courses in subject domains where discussion is important, where qualitative judgements and decisions have to be made by students and instructors, where knowledge needs to be developed and structured, in other words in any field where the learning requires more than the transmission and repetition of information, then students need to be able to interact with an instructor that has a deep understanding of the subject area. For this reason, I am more than happy to hire adjunct faculty to teach online, but not TAs in general (although there will always be exceptions). Furthermore this kind of teaching and learning (‘the learning that matters most’) is very difficult to do with a very large instructor/student ratio, although with good design and faculty training, we could possibly push numbers higher than 1/40.

One possible solution

I’m not sure there is an easy solution to this problem. Whether online or face-to-face, large numbers of students per instructor limits what is possible pedagogically.

Furthermore, in my view online learning works better for some kinds of students than others. Students in their first year of university or college are not the best target group. They are often young, have little experience of independent learning, lack confidence or discipline in their study habits, and indeed expect to be in a face-to-face teaching environment and want the social and cultural milieu that a campus provides. What we should be doing though in their first and second year is gradually introducing them to online components so that they slowly develop the discipline and skills required for successful online learning. This still doesn’t resolve the issue though of very large classes.

So here’s my suggestion for these large introductory courses of 1,000 students or more (this is not new – see the National Center for Academic Transformation‘s course redesign):

  • create a team to design, develop and deliver the course. The team will include a senior professor, several adjunct professors, and two or three TAs, plus an instructional designer and web/multimedia designer.
  • The senior professor acts as a teaching consultant, responsible for the overall design of the course, hiring and supervising the work of the adjuncts/TAs, and the assessment strategy/questions and rubrics. This though is done in consultation with the rest of the team.
  • Most content is provided online.
  • Students work in groups of 30, and each of the adjuncts is responsible for several student groups. Students do both individual and group work (e.g. projects, problem-solving),
  • Students participate in ongoing online discussion forums, under the moderation of an adjunct or TA
  • The senior professor meets for one hour a week three times face-to-face or synchronously with  a group of 30 students; this brings the professor in face-to-face contact with just over 1,000 students a semester; adjuncts where possible meet once a week with a group on campus or synchronously.
  • Adjuncts and TAs mark assignments, and the senior professor monitors/calibrates the marking between instructors
  • Now think of what could happen if this course was shared with other universities. Savings could be made on course development, but the delivery of the course would still need instructors at the other universities. So there would be some economies of scale from sharing, but not a very large saving, because the development cost is a small proportion of the overall cost. This does not mean that institutions shouldn’t co-operate and share resources, but this will not bring the large economies of scale that are often claimed for sharing online courses.

Whatever detailed design is done, these large courses should have a clear business model to work with, which basically provides an overall budget for the course, that includes the cost of tenure track and adjunct faculty and TAs, and takes account of the students numbers (more students, more budgeted money), but allowing the senior professor to build the team as best as possible within that budget.

The two elephants in the room

The above scenario works with the current system of allocating resources to different level of courses. But there are two factors that lead to the very large class sizes in first and second year that no-one really wants to talk about:

Elephant in room

  • the starvation of first and second year students of teaching resources; senior faculty concentrate more on upper level courses, and want to keep these class sizes smaller. As a consequence first and second year students suffer
  • teaching subsidizes research: too often tuition revenues get filtered off into supporting research activities. The most obvious case is that if teachers spent more time teaching and less doing research, there would be more faculty available for teaching. Teaching loads for experienced, tenured faculty are often quite light and as stated above, focused on small upper level classes.

Do a simple calculation: divide the total number of students by the number of tenure track instructors  in your institution, and that will give you an overall average instructor/student ratio for the university as a whole. So if you have 40,000 students and 2,000 full-time instructors , you have an overall instructor/student ratio of 1:20. However, then deduct 40% of their time for research, so that equals 1,200 full time equivalent, or a ratio of one instructor for 33.3 students. Then deduct another 20% of their time for administration and public service and that leaves 800 FTEs, or a ratio of one instructor for every 50 students. Even with this fairly generous allowance of 60% of their time for other activities, and WITHOUT adjuncts or TAs, in this large university there should be enough instructors to teach without having the absurdly large first and second year classes commonly found in such large universities. Add in adjuncts and TAs, and this ratio drops even further.

So don’t expect online learning to solve this problem on its own.

Your turn

I would particularly like to hear from the relatively rare instructors who have taught large classes both face-to-face and online. Do you share my concern about using TAs for distance or hybrid courses?

I’d also like to hear in general about experiences with TAs or adjunct/contract instructors as well on this topic.

My vision for an open textbook

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The False Mirror, Renée Magritte, 1898-1967

Based on ‘The False Mirror’, Renée Magritte, 1898-1967

As I announced in an earlier post, I’m planning to explore the idea of writing and publishing an open textbook, on the topic of teaching in a digital age. I set out the reasons why  in another earlier post.

Today I want to set out what my vision is for this open textbook. I want to do this now, before I start, as a sort of checklist or rubric against which to judge the final product. However, before I go any further, I want to point out that this is a personal vision for what I want to do. There are innumerable alternative visions one could quite legitimately have for an open textbook that would be quite different from mine. So here goes:

The vision

  • the book is about different approaches to teaching in a digital age, with practical guidance
  • the book is aimed mainly at faculty and instructors in colleges and universities, but designed in a way that will also appeal to many in the k-12 sector, and also to senior administrators
  • it will draw on a wide body of research and experience in the use of technology for teaching in post-secondary education and my own experiences in teaching online
  • I will try to get selected colleagues and experts in the field to participate/help, if they will accept my overall editing role
  • the drafts will be ‘tested’ openly before a final, formal peer review of the whole book
  • the first complete version of the book will be ready by December 2014
  • the book itself will be a model for open textbook publishing, incorporating many of the design principles of ‘good teaching’ – such as active and social learning, use of video and audio, crowd-sourcing, remixing and adaptation – within the open text format, as far as I can stretch it with existing technologies and services
  •  it will be preferably free, but certainly at as low a cost as possible to those who want to read it, and easily accessible in whole or in parts. The goal is zero or low cost within financial sustainability (i.e. all necessary costs are recovered in some way, except my time, which will be free – but tracked!)
  • the book will be dynamic, changing over time as the world around it changes; this means finding a way to keep the text going even after I have gone

I will treat it as an R&D project, where I track and evaluate obstacles, solutions, actual costs, partners/helpers/resources, resulting in a short guide of what to do and what not to do when writing an open textbook, all shared on an ongoing basis through this blog.

Your input/comments welcomed

How does this compare with your vision (or understanding) of an open text-book? What have I missed? Is there something in the vision I should drop right now!

Next

In about a couple of weeks, I’ll produce my first draft of a rough proposal for the content of the book, which will give readers of this blog more to chew on than ‘an airy-fairy, worse than Mary’ vision statement, as one of my British friends would say.

2020 Vision: Outlook for online learning in 2014 and way beyond

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 2020 visionTaking the long view

Doug Saunders in the Globe and Mail on  January 4 wrote an interesting piece on prediction, entitled: “Gadgets alone don’t make the future.” Having shown how amazingly accurate technologists in 1961 were in predicting what technologies would roll out in the future, he also showed how poorly they predicted how these gadgets would impact on our lives. In summary:

‘We are very good at guessing where our inventions might lead. We are very poor in understanding how humans might change their lives….the decision of what kind of life to live between the screens remains a political one, shaped not by our inventions but by our own decisions.’

Last year I spent some time discussing the value of predictions. One point I didn’t mention is the limitation of predicting just one year ahead, because you can’t identify the long term directions, and so often you’re driven by what happened in the very recent past, i.e. last year, because that’s the latest and often only data you have. More importantly, though, looking one year ahead assumes that there is no choice in what technologies we will use and how we will use them, because they are already entering our society. Also, this is likely to be the last year in which I make predictions for the future. I will be 75 in April, and I plan to stop all paid professional activities at that point (although I will keep my blog, but more as a journalist than as a practitioner).

So this seems to be a good point to look not just at 2014, but where we might be going five to ten years from now, and in doing this, I want to include choice or human decision-making as well as technological determinism. In other words, what kind of online learning do I expect in the future, given what I know so far?

The disappearance of online learning as a separate construct

In 2020, people won’t be talking about online learning as such. It will be so integrated with teaching and learning that it will be like talking today about whether we should use classrooms. In fact, we may be talking much more about classrooms or the campus experience in 2020, because of online learning, and how it is changing the whole way that students are learning. There is likely to be heated discussions about the role and purpose of campuses and school buildings, the design of classrooms, and who needs to be there (teachers and students) and more importantly what for, when students can do so much of their learning online – and generally prefer to, because of the flexibility, and of their control over their own learning. The big changes then are likely to be on-campus, rather than on-line.

Steelcase Node Classroom

Steelcase Node Classroom

Multi-mode delivery concentrated in fewer institutions – but more diversity

Quite a few public and smaller private post-secondary institutions will be gone or radically transformed by 2020. Particularly at risk are smaller, low status state or provincial universities and colleges or their campuses in metropolitan areas, where there is local and regional competition for students. They will have lost students to more prestigious universities and high status vocationally oriented institutions using online and flexible learning to boost their numbers. Government will be increasingly reluctant to build new campuses, looking to more flexible and more cost effective online delivery options to accommodate increasing demand. Nevertheless, politics will occasionally trump economics, with small new universities and colleges still being created in smaller towns away from the larger urban areas. Even these though will have much smaller campuses than today and probably as much as 50% of all course enrollments online, often in partnership with more established and prestigious universities through course sharing and credit transfer.

Those institutions that have survived will be offering students a range of choices of how they can access learning. Courses or programs will be deliberately designed to accommodate flexibility of access. Thus students will be able to decide whether to do all their studying on campus, all of it online, or a mix of both, although courses or programs are likely to have a common assessment strategy (see below). This will not be driven so much by academic or even political decisions, but by students voting with their feet (or mouses) to study at those institutions that provide such flexibility.

Multi-purpose, open delivery, with multiple levels of service and fees

Content will be multi-purposed, depending on a learner’s goals. Thus the same content can be part of a credit-based degree-level course, program or competency, part of a non-credit certificate or diploma, or available as open access. Learners will also be able to choose from a range of different course or program components, dependent on their needs and interests. Because most content will be open and modular, in the form of open textbooks, open multimedia resources, and open research, institutions will offer a variety of templates for courses and programs built around open content. For example, for a degree in physics, certain topics must be covered, with a strong recommendation for the sequence of study, but within those core levels of competency, there will be a variety of routes or electives towards a final degree, where broadly based learning outcomes are set, but multiple routes are offered for progress to these outcomes. Those content components can be accessed from a wide range of approved sources. It is the competency and academic performance of the learner that the institution will accredit.

Most institutions will have an open education portal, that contains not only a wide range of open educational resources, but also a range of open services, such as program templates or free academic guidance for specific target groups, as part of their enrollment strategy. Although such portals are likely to include materials from a wide range of sources from around the world, special emphasis will be given to open content developed by their own faculty, based on their latest research or scholarship, as a way of branding their institution. iTunesU, MIT’s Opencourseware, OpenLearn, and MOOCs are early prototypes, but content quality in the future will be greatly improved in terms of pedagogical and media design to accommodate online learners. Also states and provinces will also establish system-wide portals of open educational resources, particularly at the k-12 and two year college level (see eLearnPunjab and open.bccampus.ca as prototype models).

Because academic content is almost all open, free and easily accessible over the Internet, students will not pay tuition fees for content delivery, but for services such as academic guidance and learning support, and these fees will vary depending on the level of service required. Thus students who want a traditional course that covers guidance on and access to content, tutorial help, access to campus facilities, feedback and assessment will pay full fee (some of which may still be government subsidized in the public system). Students who want just open access will pay nothing, but will get few if any support services, and if they need a formal assessment, they will need to pay for this (although again this may be subsidized in a public system). Other students may want feedback and some form of continuous assessment, but will not want to pay for full tutorial support.

There are several consequences of this increased flexibility. Some institutions will specialize in small-class, on-campus education at high cost. Others will focus on high quality delivery through a variety of delivery modes, with a particular emphasis on course design and learner support. Some institutions will focus on low cost, competency-based open access programs, supported by businesses requiring specific skilled labour, and a few institutions will be specialists in fully online distance delivery operating on a national or international basis, at a lower cost but equally high quality as campus-based institutions. The majority of institutions though will become multi-purpose, multiple delivery institutions because of the economies of scale and scope possible.

Goodbye to the lecture-based course

In most institutions, courses based on three lectures a week over 13 weeks will have disappeared. There are several reasons for this. The first is that all content can be easily digitalized and made available on demand at very low cost. Second, institutions will be making greater use of dynamic video (not talking heads) for demonstration, simulations, animations, etc. Thus most content modules will be multi-media. Third, open textbooks incorporating multi media components and student activities will provide the content, organization and interpretation that are the rationale for most lectures. Lastly, and most significantly, the priority for teaching will have changed from information transmission and organization to knowledge management, where students have the responsibility for finding, analyzing, evaluating, sharing and applying knowledge, under the direction of a skilled subject expert. Project-based learning, collaborative learning and situated or experiential learning will become much more widely prevalent. Also many instructors will prefer to use the time they would have spent on a series of  lectures in providing more direct, individual and group learner support, thus bringing them into closer contact with learners.

This does not mean that lectures will disappear altogether, but they will be special events, and probably multi-media, synchronously and asynchronously delivered. Special events might include a professor’s summary of his latest research, the introduction to a course, a point mid-way through a course for taking stock and dealing with common difficulties, or the wrap-up to a course. It will provide a chance for an instructor to makes themselves known, to impart their interests and enthusiasm, and to motivate learners, but this will be just one, relatively small, but important component of a much broader learning experience for students.

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Goodbye to the written exam – and welcome to the final implementation of lifelong learning

For most post-secondary qualifications, written exams will have been replaced by assessment through multimedia portfolios of student work. These will show not only students’ current knowledge and competencies, but also their progression over time, and a range of equally important skills, such as their ability to work collaboratively, self-management of learning, and general communication skills. Assessment will be mainly on a continuous, on-going basis.

As well as change in the method of assessing learning there will be greater variety in the range of accredited qualifications. Degrees, certificates and diplomas will still be important, but these will be complemented with a wide range of assessments of informal or non-formal learning, such as badges, some offered by post-secondary institutions, others offered by employers’ organizations or co-operatives of professionals. University and college diplomas and degrees will increasingly be seen as milestones on the journey to lifelong learning, and for demographic and economic reasons, the lifelong learning market will become a much larger market than the high school leaver market.

This means academic departments will need to develop programs and courses that range from introductory or foundational through undergraduate degrees to professional masters to lifelong learning, again using similar content modules adapted to different markets, as well as creating or adapting new content, based on the latest research in a field, for these newer markets. Much of the lifelong market will lend itself to online and hybrid learning, but in different structures (short modules, for instance) than the undergraduate and higher degree market. Universities and colleges will increasingly compete with the corporate training industry for these post-postgraduate learners, who will be able and willing to afford top dollar for top-level lifelong learning opportunities, based on the latest research coming out of universities, government and businesses.

However, a large part of the lifelong learning market will become occupied by communities of practice and self-learning, through collaborative learning, sharing of knowledge and experience, and crowd-sourcing new ideas and development, particularly assisted by an evolution of what are now known as cMOOCs. Such informal learning provision will be particularly valuable for non-governmental or charitable organizations, such as the Red Cross, Greenpeace or UNICEF, or local government, looking for ways to engage communities in their areas of operation. These communities of learners will be open and free, and hence will provide a competitive alternative to the high priced lifelong learning programs being offered by research universities. This will put pressure on universities and colleges to provide more flexible arrangements for recognition of informal learning, in order to hold on to their current monopoly of post-secondary accreditation.

Image: © Etienne Wenger, 2010

Image: © Etienne Wenger, 2010

New financial models

Because most content will be freely accessible, and because students will pay incrementally for a wide variety of services, new financial models will need to be developed, to support the flexibility and range of services that students will increasingly demand and require. The biggest move is likely to be away from block funding or enrollment-driven funding by government towards pay-for-service through student fees for teaching. There will be further separation of the funding for research and teaching (this has already happened in some countries, such as in England and Wales.) As a result government financing may well change, so that students are given a post-secondary grant at the age of 17, and have the right to decide how to spend that grant on post-secondary education, rather than funding institutions directly for teaching.

This may have some unexpected benefits for academic departments. Under this model it makes much more sense to fund programs directly from fees for the program, than to pool grants and fees centrally then break out money for teaching and filter it down through the departments. Thus program fees or service fees  would come to academic departments (or more accurately the program areas) directly, then the programs would pay for university services such as registration and financial services on a direct cost basis, plus a percentage for general overheads. This is already happening in some public universities at post-graduate levels, where tuition fees for online professional masters more than cover all the costs, direct and indirect, of a program, including the cost of full-time research professors who teach on the program.

This model would also have two other benefits. It would put pressure on service departments, such as HR, financial services, the Registry, etc., to become more cost-efficient, because direct costs to programs become more transparent. Second, since online students do not need a range of campus services such as campus building maintenance, lighting, and heating, it would lead to the different costs of online vs campus-teaching becoming more transparent and comparable, with an economic incentive to move more towards the most cost-efficient delivery model.

There are also disadvantages. Some model would be needed to support more expensive programs to deliver, or programs that are specialized but important in a university community. However, a program-based financial model may help save small departments who are struggling for minimal enrolments from their local market. Online courses can open the market to regional or international students and offer the chance of collaboration and partnership with other institutions, through course and student sharing.

The disaggregation of institutional activities required for the flexible delivery of programs in a world where content is free offers opportunities for rethinking how teaching and learning is funded.

Systematic faculty development and training

Since content will be freely accessible, institutions’ reputation and branding will increasingly depend on the way they support learners. This will put much greater emphasis on instructors having good teaching skills as well as subject expertise. Thus most universities and colleges will require faculty to have assessed teaching skills before tenure or permanent appointment, and equal attention will be given to teaching expertise as research in promotion. This will mean incorporating teaching practice and methods within most post-graduate subject areas, college instructors having compulsory pre-service teacher training, and regular faculty having systematic ongoing professional development as new technologies and new teaching approaches develop over time. The immediate benefit of this will be better student retention rates and higher quality learning outcomes.

Devolved decision-making and organizational models

A move to program-based funding, the need for effective course designs to attract students, the differentiation of services, the increased professionalism in teaching, and freely available open content will result in a move to systematic program planning and team teaching. A typical team will consist of a senior research professor, several junior or adjunct professors, an instructional designer/project manager and a media/web designer. The senior faculty member, in collaboration with the other team members, will be responsible for decisions about curriculum content, methods of learner support, and assessment standards. The team will develop assessment criteria and rubrics, and where necessary hire additional instructors for learner support and marking of assessments , under the supervision of the senior faculty members.

One consequence will be the disappearance of central centres for teaching and technology, except in small institutions. Instructional design staff will be located in program areas and will be responsible with academic faculty for faculty development activities, as well as with overall course design input. There will be increased demand for media designers, while instructional designers will be in less demand in the future, but still necessary to support faculty, especially as new learning technologies develop.

Student privacy, data security and student online behaviour will become more difficult

Learning will increasingly be delivered through student-owned devices, and learners will increasingly integrate social life, work and study in a seamless manner. Services will increasingly be delivered through the cloud. Security agencies, Internet-based companies and knowledge-based companies will constantly be seeking access to student data, especially student learning performance and online behaviour, as this information will be increasingly valuable for state security and commercial reasons. As a result it will become increasingly difficult for institutions to protect student data and their privacy. This may turn out to be the biggest challenge for students, institutions, and government in the next 20 years and could seriously inhibit the development of online learning in the future, if students or faculty lose trust in the system.

The future is about choices

This is my view about where we could be going with online learning in the next five to ten years. However, I will not be making the decisions, as I am retiring in April. If you do not like this vision, then you are in a position to influence a different kind of vision. Although as McLuhan says, we are shaped by our devices, we also shape the world around these devices. The worst thing we could do is to leave it to computer scientists to decide our future.

The value such a vision lies not in its detail, but in identifying some of the key choices or decisions that will need to be made. So here are the decisions that are thrown up by this vision for the future, for students, faculty, institutions and government (and some of these, such as those about campus facilities, should be being made right now):

Students and learners

  • at this point in my life, what are my learning goals? What is the best way to meet these? Where can I get advice for this?
  • do I need a qualification and if so, what kind?
  • what is the best way for me to access this learning? On-campus; online; or a mix of both?
  • what kind of learning support do I need?
  • how much do I want to – or must I – pay for these services?
  • what institution or other method of delivery will provide what I want? Where can I get independent advice on this?
  • how can I protect my privacy when I am online studying?

Faculty and instructors

  • why do students need to come to campus? What am I offering on-campus that they couldn’t get online? Have I looked up the research on this?
  • what teaching methods will lead to the kind of learning outcomes that students will need in life?
  • what should be my role if content is freely available online?
  • what kind of teaching spaces do I need for what I want to offer on campus?
  • how should I best use my time in teaching? In what kind of teaching activities can I really make a difference for students?
  • if I create new or original content for my teaching, should I make it openly available to anyone to use?
  • what methods of assessment should I use in a digital age? How do I assess prior or informal learning?
  • what kind of courses or programs should we be offering for lifelong learners?
  • what do I need to know about student data, and the protection of student privacy?
  • what training or professional development do I need to ensure that I can meet the learning needs of my students?

Institutions

  • what kind of campus will we need in 10 years time?
  • what proportion of course enrollments are likely to be accessed off-campus?
  • what will be the best way to accommodate more students – online learning or more buildings?
  • what kind and number of teaching spaces will we need?
  • what partnerships or strategies should we adopt to protect our enrollment base?
  • what are our strategies and policies regarding open educational resources?
  • what is our strategy for lifelong learning?
  • what financial models should we put in place to encourage innovation in teaching and to attract students?
  • how do we ensure that faculty have the skills necessary for teaching in a digital age?
  • how can we best reward innovation and high quality teaching?
  • what kind of organization and staff do we need to support faculty in their teaching?
  • how do we best protect student data and privacy (as well as our staff’s) in a digital age?

Government

  • what kind of post-secondary system, in terms of institutional differentiation, program delivery and innovations in teaching, do we need in a digital age?
  • how many, and what kind of, campuses do we need when students are also studying online? What is the best way to accommodate expansion in the system?
  • how can we best support system-wide open education, to reduce costs and increase quality?
  • how should we fund post-secondary education in a digital age? How much and what should ‘first-time’ students pay for themselves? What should lifelong learners who have already been through the system pay? What funding models would encourage innovation in teaching and help improve quality?
  • how can online learning help to increase the productivity of the post-secondary educational system? What can we do to encourage this?
  • what does government need to do to protect student data and student privacy?

What’s YOUR vision?

I won’t be around to make or influence these decisions, but most of you will. Are there decisions I’ve missed? What decisions would you make? What’s your vision for the future?

If you are willing to share just one response to any of these questions or decisions, this will be very much appreciated. Because the future will be increasingly about sharing knowledge.

Look back in anger? A review of online learning in 2013

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Toronto's mayor was the story of 2013 in Canada

Toronto’s mayor was the story of 2013 in Canada

Well, where did 2013 go? It seems like only last week I was writing the 2012 review!This year, I did better with my predictions for 2013 in my Outlook for Online Learning in 2013, as we shall see

Another year of the MOOC

Audrey Watters provides a comprehensive overview of developments around MOOCs in 2013. She concluded:

 If 2012 was, as The New York Times decreed, the year of the MOOC, 2013 might be described as the year of the anti-MOOC as we slid down that Gartner Hype Cycle from the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” and into the “Trough of Disillusionment.” 

Certainly, MOOCs dominated the online learning agenda during 2003. However, it is in my view too early to decide that MOOCs are now on the slope of disillusionment, despite Sebastian Thrun’s throwing his hands in the air at Udacity. According to the European Commission, at the end of 2013 there are more than 1,100 MOOCs worldwide, and the shock wave continues to ripple well beyond North America into other parts of the world.

I will write more about where I see MOOCs going in my Outlook for 2014 in the new year, but looking back, I wouldn’t change anything that I wrote about MOOCs at the end of 2012:

© The Greening of Gavin, 2012

© The Greening of Gavin, 2012

Indeed, developments during 2013, with one exception, have merely reinforced my 2012 position. The exception came from listening to Stephen Downes in Lyon talking about his vision of cMOOCs, which, if or when fully implemented, would be much more interesting than anything we have seen to date from the major MOOC providers. Indeed, I was struck by a recent comment from someone with 15 years of experience in designing face-to-face, blended and online credit programs: I am trying to understand what MOOCs can offer that my understanding of educational design, learning design and online and distance education does not include. I’m afraid that the answer continues to be: ‘Nothing,‘ at least for the moment.

Indeed, in many ways, MOOCs have become a major distraction from developing more innovative and more relevant applications of online learning for credit. MOOCs may be free to learners, but they are not free for institutions. With the average cost of just developing an xMOOC being between $50,000 – $100,000, this means that with over 1,000 MOOCs, more than $50 million to $100 million has been spent on non-credit courses that could have been spent on producing online courses for credit, leading to recognized credentials. In itself, this focus on non-formal learning might be OK, if it was tied to some clear policy objective, but we certainly haven’t seen the return on investment from MOOCs to date.

Of course, this money is unlikely to have been spent on online credit courses if MOOCs hadn’t come along. It has to be recognized that MOOCs have grabbed the attention of elite universities who until the advent of MOOCs had paid no attention to online learning. More importantly MOOCs have also gotten the attention of university boards of governors, politicians, policy-makers and even government ministers, which credit-based online learning has never done. This has forced many universities for the first time to think strategically about online learning, and where MOOCs fit within such a strategy, which has been really good for my consultancy business – and probably for credit-based online learning as well.

The problem though is that outside those with experience or knowledge of online learning, MOOCs are being seen (and deliberately portrayed by elite universities) as the only form of online learning worth considering. The danger is that if or when the MOOC bubble bursts, all forms of online learning could be tarred with the same brush at the same time. However, this is looking forward, and early in the new year I will discuss more about where I think MOOCs are going in my Outlook for 2014.

The key point here is that while MOOCs may have been getting the media attention, for most professionals working in online learning in post-secondary education, what was happening within the institutions was rather different. Let’s look at some of these other developments in 2013.

Institutional strategies for online learning

Partly as a result of MOOCs, but also because of moves toward integrating online learning with classroom teaching, a number of institutions have either developed or started to develop a more strategic approach to online learning. For instance, I was personally involved in discussions around strategic planning for online learning in 2013 with the University of British Columbia, the University of Ottawa, York University, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Thompson Rivers University, and Western University, in Canada, and Deakin University, in Australia. I can’t think of another year where there has been so much interest at an institutional level in thinking strategically about online learning.

These plans meant setting priorities and goals for online and hybrid learning and in some cases targets for online course development. In Ontario this was partly driven by government intervention, requiring universities and colleges to come forward with their plans for online learning as part of a broader exercise in defining clear institutional mandates. Tied to these strategies were considerations of resources, organization and methods of working, some of which will be described more fully below.

From the periphery to the centre

The focus on strategies for online learning resulted in some cases in thinking about appropriate types of organization to support online learning. In many Canadian universities, online learning had been seen as an extension of distance education, and hence the responsibility mainly of Continuing Studies or Extension Departments, but with the move to hybrid learning and the move to online professional masters programs, mainline academic departments are needing access to the skills of instructional designers and web designers that until recently had been located elsewhere.

No single solution to this issue seems to have been found, but many Canadian institutions now have established central units that report to the Provost and serve the faculties directly. As well as including support for online learning, these units now also cover general faculty development as well as distance learning.This has the advantage of facilitating the transfer of teaching innovations from one academic department throughout the institution. In some institutions these centres for teaching, learning and technology have grown rapidly, with some numbering more than 60 staff.

Hybrid learning

I saw in 2013 many Canadian universities and some colleges introducing flipped classrooms, where students view a taped lecture then come to class to discuss, solve problems, or do project work around the topic of the lecture. This is particularly popular for breaking up large lecture classes and making them more interactive.

While I did come across some interesting discussions about the implications of this for classroom furniture and the design and layout of classrooms, I didn’t come across more radical designs that moved away from taping lectures to really thinking about the affordances of online learning and the campus from a design perspective. Maybe next year.

Steelcase Node Classroom

Steelcase Node Classroom

An increased push from government to use online learning for greater academic productivity

In Ontario, the Minister for Training, Colleges and Universities starkly presented the situation facing universities and colleges in Ontario over the next few years: take more students, produce better quality outcomes, but receive no more money, because there isn’t any. He challenged the institutions to look to technology to increase productivity. The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario commissioned a report on online learning, productivity and quality.

Ontario is not alone. Severe funding cuts in the USA has led governments, particularly state governors, to press the case for online learning to provide a lower cost alternative to campus-based education. At a Federal level, the Obama government has poured millions of dollars into fostering open educational resources. In British Columbia, the government is bringing in an open textbook program to reduce students’ textbook costs. MOOCs, rightly or wrongly, have led politicians and policy-makers to believe that online learning can dramatically reduce costs.

This is an interesting development, because until recently, most online learning professionals have been more than happy if their online students performed as well as the on-campus counterparts, and could do this at no more cost. Partly because of the fear of push-back from academics, (‘Online learning will take our jobs away’), the argument has rarely been made that online learning could lead to better results at less cost. Increased productivity up to now has not been a key goal for online learning (access and flexibility have been the key rationales). This is changing, and as professionals we need to be better prepared for this push, which is why I tried this year to start a debate about online learning and productivity through a series of posts.

Open educational resources

There were three significant developments in OERs (apart from MOOC) in 2013 for me:

  • the BC open textbook project, which is now under way, which aims to save students $800-$1,000 a year on textbooks
  • the formation of the OERu, which aims to enable students to acquire full degree credentials from recognized universities through free, open courses
  • OER4Adults, an overview and analysis of practices with Open Educational Resources in adult education in Europe, which sets out the ‘tensions’ that inhibit greater use of OERs

What interested you?

Below are the top 10 posts in terms of ‘hits’ during 2013. (All posted in 2013, except where the first year posted is given. Number of hits refers though only to 2013, not all-time total hits for earlier posts):

Top 10 posts for 2013

Recommended graduate programs in e-learning (2008) 13,190
What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs (2012) 8,814
Can you teach ‘real’ engineering at a distance? (2009) 5,800
What Is Distance Education? (2008) 5,652
The world’s largest supplier of free online learning? (2012) 5,146
Outlook for online learning in 2013:  5,138
Online learning in California generates controversy 4,992
What’s going on at Athabasca University?
3,440
MOOCs, MIT and Magic 3,226
E-learning quality assurance standards,… and research (2010) 2,977

Four of the top five are of particular interest to graduate students, and are mainly the result of ‘trawling’ for information about graduate programs available online. (Incidentally, the post on the world’s largest supplier of free online learning wasn’t about MOOCs, but about Alison, an online provider of training materials.)

I was interested to note that the top five posts were all posted before 2013. One reason for this of course is that many posts in 2013 are of less than 12 months duration, so have had less time to build interest. If we look at the top 10 posted in 2013, we would add to the four above the following:

How online learning is going to affect classroom design 2,370
Harvard’s current thinking on MOOCs 1,490
MOOCs, Norway, and the ecology of digital learning 1,333
Discussing design models for hybrid/blended learning and the impact on the campus 1,283
North Korea launches two MOOCs 1,200
MIT, learning technologies, and developing countries: lessons in technology transfer 1,077
My seven ‘a-ha’ moments in the history of educational technology 1,069

So four of the top 10 posts in 2013 were about MOOCs, and two were about hybrid learning.

Although only one of my eight posts on ‘aha’ moments in educational technology got into the top 10, the series as a whole did quite well, with a total of 5,200 hits, or an average of 650 hits per post. Also, the Nine Steps to Quality Online Learning, started in 2012, continued to do well during 2013, with 6,470 hits for an average of 808 per post. Similarly, the series Models for Selecting and Using Technology, started in 2011, also did well during 2013, with 2,341 hits for an average of 585 per post. I’m getting a better rate of persistence on these series than many MOOCs, by the way.

On the other hand, my series on productivity and online learning has generally been a bust, with hits averaging around 200 per post. However, this is, I hope, a series that will, like some of my other series, build over time, as more and more people come to realise its importance. It is still early days yet.

I’d be really interested to hear from readers where I should be focusing my posts in 2014.

Conclusions

Another interesting year, but also a frustrating one, mainly due to the MOOC phenomenon. There are far more important developments going on in online learning than MOOCs, and the continuous hype, arrogance, and ignorance particularly of the MOOC computer scientists in elite universities has made me more angry than I have been since the dot com bust in 2000, when the media and elite universities were bragging about turning online learning into a huge money-making machine – and we know how that ended.

Nevertheless, MOOCs have been important in getting online learning noticed, even if for the wrong reasons. Let’s hope 2014 will see a more focused approach on improving productivity while maintaining or increasing the quality of post-secondary education. It is clear that the system cannot go on in the way it has been going, and online learning can play an important role, as much in improving quality as in reducing costs.

However, it is important to set realistic expectations. There is no single, simple solution to improving a vast complex, higher education system. There is no silver bullet.

Improving productivity in online learning: can we scale ‘the learning that matters most’?

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Can 'the magic of the campus' be replicated online - and at scale?

Can ‘the magic of the campus’ be replicated online – and at scale?

The story so far

This is a continuation of the discussion on whether online learning can increase educational ‘productivity.’ Previous posts in this series include:

There is a CIDER webinar presentation on the HEQCO report available from here

In the last post, I concluded:

  • there are major economies of scale in using computer-based feedback for facilitating comprehension and technical mastery outcomes
  • computer-based feedback, when well designed, can also be useful in providing student feedback for more complex forms of learning, such as alternative strategies, critical thinking and evaluation
  • however computer-based analyses to date are inadequate for formal assessment of these higher order learning skills, where deep expertise and qualitative assessment is required, and where learners may provide new insights or alternative explanations
  • redesign of courses with a greater focus on student discovery (finding, analyzing and applying content) within a learning design offers more modest but still significant potential for increases in productivity, mainly through better learning outcomes (development of 21st century skills) and through more effective use of senior research professors’ time.

Learner-instructor interaction and economies of scale

In this current post, I examine particularly the learner-instructor interaction, and discuss whether online learning can provide economies of scale in this area. This is particularly important, because research on credit-based online learning has shown that course delivery (which includes both learner support and student assessment) accounted for the largest overall cost of an online program (37%), almost three times more than course development, over the life of an online program (Bates and Sangra, 2011).

Can we scale ‘the learning that matters most’?

This important question has been raised in the HEQCO report by Tom Carey and David Trick. It is this issue I wish to address here, since scaling up the delivery of content, and learner-content interaction, through online learning is relatively easy, although both depend on good course design for effective learning.

What is more challenging is whether we can also scale the kind of ‘learning that matters most’, namely helping students when they struggle with new concepts or ideas, helping students to gain deep understanding of a topic or subject, helping students to evaluate a range of different ideas or practices, providing students with professional formation or development, understanding the limits of knowledge, and above all enabling students to find, evaluate and apply knowledge appropriately in new or ill-defined contexts.

Before looking at whether or not such activities can be scaled, it is important to challenge the view, such as Sanjay Sharma’s at MIT, that such forms of learning can only be achieved on campus. There is also more than a hint of this assumption in the HEQCO report, at least with respect to undergraduate education. Those of us who have taught online will know that it is possible to develop these kinds of learning outcomes online, especially but not exclusively at graduate level. Strategies such as scaffolding or supporting knowledge construction through online discussion and dialogue, student reflection through e-portfolios, and above all personal online interventions and communication between students and instructor, have all been found to lead to learning outcomes at least as equivalent to those of students studying the same subjects on-campus (see references below).

There will remain a relatively few learning activities that matter most that are best done on campus, such as the development of hands-on skills, but there will be others, such as knowledge management, that may well be best done online. More importantly, there will be some students who really need the environment provided by a campus, and others that will prefer an online environment.

The issue is not can the learning that matters most be done online, but can it be scaled up through online learning? Certainly, I would argue that the main criticism of xMOOCs is that they spectacularly fail to address this form of learning. However, cMOOCs, when they operate at the level of communities of practice with relatively shared levels of understanding and knowledge among the participants, do have at least the potential for such economies of scale while maintaining or even improving quality of learning outcomes. The challenge though is how one accounts for the hidden costs of the participation of experts in such professional sharing, which rely heavily on volunteering or ‘moonlighting’ from a paid job by those with the expertise. I suspect though that even if these costs were calculated, they would still prove more ‘productive’ than conventional campus-based classes for this type of learner. However, the cost-effectiveness research has yet to be done.

The challenge though is scaling up the kinds of interaction between students and instructors that enable diagnosis of a student’s learning difficulties, that facilitate deep understanding of a subject, that encourage creative and original thinking, especially within undergraduate education. Adaptive learning and learning analytics may help to some extent, but in my view cannot yet come close to matching the skill of an experienced and skilled instructor. If instructors are to have enough time to engage in these kinds of dialogue and communication with students, there is clearly a limit on the number of students they can handle. Thus there is a possibility of small increases in productivity, aided by developments such as adaptive learning and learning analytics, but not major ones, in this aspect of teaching and learning.

Scaling the assessment of ‘learning that matters most.’

When ‘the magic of the campus’ is raised, one of the implicit assumptions is that student assessment is more valid because of the personal knowledge that faculty develop of a student in their entirety, and not just in their formal academic work: how they conduct themselves in class discussion (not just what they say, but how they say it), their interests and knowledge outside the formal curriculum (e.g. do they read widely or participate in valued extra-curricula activities), and the impression students make in social activities with faculty. This ‘tacit’ knowledge of a particular student that faculty acquire on campus can heavily influence the final assessment of a student, beyond that of the final exam. As they say at Oxford University, ‘Is he one of us?’

I was fortunate to have done my undergraduate degree in a department where every ‘honours’ student was well known by every faculty member. We were told that in the final exam, we could not get a worse grade than was already determined, but we could improve on it by a really good performance. In other words, the final exam was more of a rite of passage – the assessment was already more or less in place. This was only possible because of the ‘deep’ knowledge that faculty had already gained of the students. The fear that many faculty have of of online learning is that this kind of knowledge of a student is impossible ‘at a distance.’

Again, however, at least some elements of this ‘getting to know students’ can be achieved online, through continuous assessment, the use of e-portfolios and participation in online discussions. Again, the similarities between online learning and campus teaching are often greater than the differences. The problem is scaling up this kind of in-depth academic relationship between student and instructor, both for classroom and online teaching. Although the actual ratio may be difficult to specify, it is clear that this kind of relationship cannot be built up if the instructor:student ratio is in the thousands.

The fact is though that undergraduate students in most public universities are not in the fortunate position that I was. Even in their final year, many find themselves are in classes of over 100 students. They will probably be better off in an online class of 30 students, and even in an online class of 100, they may have more personal interaction with the instructor than in a lecture theatre, if the course is well designed. However, scaling up much beyond this ratio is not going to enable the more personal intellectual relationship to develop that allows for the more informal ‘I know what this student is capable of’ relationship, either online or on campus.

In short, for assessment based on deep knowledge of a student’s progress and capabilities, the scope for economies of scale are limited. In this sense, teacher:student ratios do matter, so economies of scale through online learning will be difficult to achieve for these higher order learning skills.

Conclusions

This has been a particularly difficult blog to write which suggests I may still not be thinking clearly about this topic, so please help me out! However, here is where I stand on this issue so far:

1. The ‘learning that matters most’ mainly addresses university teaching, but I suspect also increasingly technical, vocational and corporate training; the aim is to develop the knowledge and skills needed in a knowledge-based society.

2. Online learning can handle the ‘learning that matters most’ as well, in most cases, as on-campus teaching, although there will always be some exceptions.

3. However, there are major difficulties in scaling up the learner support and assessment activities that are needed for the learning that matters most, both online or on campus. The danger in scaling up is the loss of quality in terms of learning outcomes.

4. Adaptive learning software that helps individualize learning, and learning analytics, may help to a small degree in enabling instructors to handle slightly more students without loss of quality, but cannot as yet replace a skilled instructor, and probably never will.

5. New online course designs built around the use of new technologies have greater potential for increases in productivity – through producing better learning outcomes – for the learning that matters most, than through scaling up, i.e. by increasing teacher:student ratios.

6. We need more empirical research on the relationship between teaching methods, mode of delivery, costs, and the type of learning outcomes that constitute the ‘learning that matters most’ (not to mention better definitions).

Your input

First I’d really welcome responses to this post. In particular:

  • Is ‘the learning that matters most’ a useful concept for university teaching? Do you agree with my descriptions of it?
  • Have I missed something obvious in the possibility for scaling these learner support and assessment activities?
  • Can adaptive learning software and learning analytics take some or all of the load off instructors in developing such learning outcomes?
  • What would new online course designs that increase productivity look like? Do you have actual examples that have been implemented?

Next

In my next post on this topic, I will discuss an area where I think there is huge potential for increasing productivity through online learning, and that is through savings in physical overheads.

References

Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, R., & Archer, W. (2001). Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Vol. 5, No.2.

Baker, C. (2010) The Impact of Instructor Immediacy and Presence for Online Student Affective Learning, Cognition, and Motivation The Journal of Educators Online Vol. 7, No. 1

Bates, A. and Sangrà, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley and Son

Garrison, D. R. & Cleveland-Innes, M. (2005). Facilitating cognitive presence in online learning: Interaction is not enough. American Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 19, No. 3

Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Jonassen, D., Davidson, M., Collins, M., Campbell, J. and Haag, B. (1995) ‘Constructivism and Computer-mediated Communication in Distance Education’, American Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp 7-26.

Paloff, R. and Pratt, K. (2007) Building Online Learning Communities San Francisco: John Wiley and Co.

Richardson, J. C., & Swan, K. (2003). Examining social presence in online courses in relation to students’ perceived learning and satisfaction. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 7 (1), 68-8 8.

Salmon, G. (2000) E-moderating London/New York: Routledge

Sheridan, K. and Kelly, M.  (2010) The Indicators of Instructor Presence that are Important to Students in Online Courses MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Vol. 6, No. 4