April 16, 2014

Why successful consortia for online learning are so difficult

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The five steps of online system collaboration © Rachel Fishman, 2013

The five steps of online system collaboration © Rachel Fishman, 2013

Fishman, R. (2013) State U Online Washington DC: The New America Foundation

Fishman, R. (2014) Seeking Your Input on Online Consortia and Online Community Colleges WCET Frontiers

It would seem obvious that there would be great advantage in building consortia for online courses, so that courses could be shared between institutions, thus saving institutions the cost of developing new courses that are already being offered by other institutions. In particular, when you have a single state system of universities and two year colleges, it seems even more obvious. This is basically the idea behind the new Ontario Online initiative, for universities (Ontario already has a collaborative system, OntarioLearn, a partnership of 24 Ontario community colleges that have pooled their resources to increase online learning options.)

However, credit-based online courses have been around for many years, and yet there are very few successful consortia (Open Universities Australia is one good example.) The University of Florida System is a more recent example, as is the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.

Rachel Fishman’s report, State U Online, was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and tracks the development of online university consortia in the USA. She  identifies five steps that a state can take to build an integrated state-wide online system, and provides case studies of systems and institutions that have reached each ‘level.’

  1. Clearinghouse: State institutions collaborate to provide a clearinghouse of courses and degrees that a student can easily search. However, students must apply to each institution individually, and credit transfer between institutions is not automatic. Contact North provides such a portal in Ontario.
  2. Shared contracts: State institutions join together to purchase shared contracts for resources like a common LMS or services such as web conferencing or professional development around online learning. BCcampus operates something similar in British Columbia.
  3. Shared student services: state systems provide a variety of student support services at all (participating) institutions within the system, such as advising, local study centres, or even more common, proctored examination centres.
  4. Shared and articulated credentials: state systems have created carefully articulated efforts that include easy transfer of credit among institutions and shared credentialing. (This would include OntarioLearn)
  5. Shared credentials beyond state borders:  Several state systems create collaborative inter-institutional and inter-state efforts that take all of the previous steps, and allow students to move freely beyond state borders. Great Plains IDEA is an example from the USA, and Open Universities Australia is another example.

Fishman argues in the report that ‘public institutions should strongly consider adopting a system wide or consortia approach, in a manner that fits their unique contexts‘ and makes seven recommendations that will help strengthen such consortia.

However, in her blog post for WCET Frontiers, where she is asking for input for a new study on consortia in two-year colleges, she acknowledges that ‘[these five] categories may not be as distinct or as linear as I have made them out to be. And for some states, there are many barriers already in place that prevent institutions from even being able to come together and collaborate in the first place.’


The State U Online report should be compulsory reading for politicians and policy makers interested in course sharing and creating consortia.

However, what the report does not adequately address are the economics of online learning. Course sharing is not just about delivery of content, but also about providing learner support. If an institution takes a course from another institution, who will provide that ongoing learner support and assessment? It is the learner support that costs money (at least twice the cost of course development), and it is in the details of who will do the teaching of the online course – and how that gets paid for – where consortia so often break down. Having a strong and robust business model that adequately ensures the costs of all partners are adequately covered, and any surplus revenues are appropriately shared, is essential for successful consortia, but these conditions are very difficult to meet.

Another major barrier is academic distrust of other institutions: ‘Our courses are always good; yours are garbage.’ Also, for obvious reasons, faculty often feel uncomfortable teaching a course designed by someone else, and into the design of which they had no input.

For consortia to work, there has to be a synergy and a mutual respect for the other partners in the consortium. In a large system it is unrealistic to expect automatic transfer of credits between every institution in the system, although some states, such as California and Florida, have gone a long way to building equivalencies between courses in different institutions that facilitate formal credit transfer arrangements, through subject discipline articulation committees. But that is very hard work, takes many years to build, and requires a common vision and mutual respect. That is very hard to achieve in systems that put so much emphasis on competition and rankings.

So yes, consortia are desirable, but it ain’t easy. In the meantime, if you know of any successful online consortia let Rachel Fishman know (and me, too!)

Contact North on Online Learning, Innovation, Flexibility and Open Educational Resources

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Contact North's humble office in Sudbury, Ontario

Contact North’s humble office in Sudbury, Ontario

Contact North continues to produce a range of interesting short pieces on different aspects of online learning. (Disclaimer: I am a Contact North research associate, and have contributed a few times.)

The April 9 edition of Contact North’s Online Learning News contains three such contributions (all these pieces are generally anonymously written):

The What, Why, Where, and How of Open Educational Resources (OER)

Dr. Rory McGreal, Contact North | Contact Nord Research Associate and the UNESCO/Commonwealth of Learning Chair in Open Educational Resources answers these fundamental questions in a series of 10 short, informative videos, Open Educational Resources (OER) – A Video Primer.

There are two available at the moment, with others coming:

  1. What are open educational resources?
  2. Comparing commercial and open educational resources.

How to Design an Innovative Course

This piece suggests some steps that can help faculty and instructors approach the issue of innovative teaching in a systematic way, including

  • being clear on the problem you are trying to solve
  • working in a team
  • applying technology appropriately to address the problem to be solved
  • evaluating and disseminating your innovation

Greater Flexibility as the New Mantra

I have recently visited a Canadian university developing a major strategy around flexible learning, and this short piece (by someone else) suggests a wide range of ways in which institutions can increase their flexibility, including:

  • course design and delivery options
  • learning recognition and credit granting
  • program completion
  • assessment
  • transition from apprenticeship through diploma to degrees to graduate work .

These and many more items can be found on Contact North’s ‘Ontario Online Learning Portal for Faculty and Instructors’, available both in English and French.

Click here if you wish to subscribe to Contact North’s newsletter.

Hooray for Janet Napolitano and her views on online learning (and public HE in general)!

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Napolitano, J. (2014) A conversation with University of California President Janet Napolitano Sacramento CA: Public Policy Institute of California

Hiltzik, M. (2014) UC’s Napolitano throws cold water on the online education craze Los Angeles Times, March 26

The conversation

I never thought I would be a cheerleader for Janet Napolitano, formerly Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and a former governor of Arizona, but in her role as the relatively new President of the vast University of California System, she recently made some much needed comments about the hype around online learning in a ‘conversation’ at the Public Policy Institute of California two days ago (captured in a YouTube video).

The whole ‘conversation’ lasts about an hour, but her comments on online learning come 31 mins 10 secs into the interview and last only two minutes, with another brief comment at 48’15. However, the whole of her comments, about UC and the importance of publicly funded higher education, are well worth listening to by anyone interested in the future of public higher education.

What she said about online learning

She did not (contrary a possible reading of Hiltzik’s headline in the LA Times) pour cold water on online learning. What she said was as follows:

  • it is one tool in the toolbox
  • it’s not easy to do well
  • students need regular interaction online with other students and with instructors
  • so it’s not going to save buckets of money
  • it’s better for students in upper level programs
  • it could help in sharing courses across campuses and in assisting transfers (between community colleges, state universities and UC).

Why what she said is important

There are probably many of you reading this article who like me, would agree with all the points she made about online learning. But these comments need to be seen in the following context:

What she is doing is bringing online learning down to the level of sensible policy – not a silver bullet for all HE’s ills, but one, important, tool in the box. This allows policy makers to focus on the true value of online learning, and also protects it from disappearing off the radar when the next fad hits the USA, or when disillusionment sets in around MOOCs.

What she also said about public higher education

You probably know the feeling of going into a bookstore to look for just one book, then another book catches your eye and keeps you riveted. That’s what happened to me with this video. My intent was to skip through the video until I got to the bit on online learning (not knowing when it would come up). But she held me with her thoughts right from the beginning in two related areas: the value of a strong public higher education system; and the enormous importance of the University of California system, for the USA as a whole. I’ll start with a few points about the UC system (see  New developments in online learning across the University of California system – and the implications for us all for more details)

The UC system

  • the state of California is the eighth largest economy in the world
  • the UC system has 10 campuses with nearly 250,000 students
  • UC’s total operating budget is $28 billion a year
  • 46% of UC’s new entrants are first generation university students, and almost half come from homes where English is not the first language
  • 50% of UC’s students pay no tuition at all, because of scholarships, grants, and a reinvestment of 30% of paid tuition fees into funding poorer students. Students from families earning less than $80,000 pay no tuition
  • 30% of each annual intake transfer in from California’s two year community colleges
  • 70-75% of all UC undergraduates complete within four years (the highest percentage among public universities in the USA)

The value of a public higher education system and UC in particular

I can’t really do justice to her eloquence on this subject, but the main points are

  • UC is an essential component of California’s knowledge-based economy: thousands of top-quality graduates entering the work force each year. In terms of sheer numbers, UC is a critical economic generator for the future in California
  • UC is a powerful engine that drives social mobility (see above).

The need for a public debate on the funding of HE in California

Despite the massive size of the state system, the universities and colleges are turning away qualified high school graduates because all the places are full (the two year college system in particular is hugely oversubscribed in terms of places). There has been continuous and systematic reductions in the state budget for higher education over the last six years, due to tax cutting and a major drop in other sources of state funding. The affordability of HE is a key concern of Californian voters, and a key priority of UC is to keep tuition as low and as predictable as possible. However, this has to be balanced in terms of providing the education that California will need if it is to maintain its position as an economic powerhouse.

Napolitano was cautious about  leading a campaign for a debate or a new state-wide agenda on public higher education,  but if there is a case to be made, I’m sure she’ll make it – and make it forcibly. In the meantime, la-la land may be getting its feet back on the ground.

Open and distance learning in Myanmar

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Shwedagon Pagoda Yangon

Shwedagon Pagoda Yangon

Hla Tint (2014) Perspectives of Open and Distance Learning in Myanmar Yangon Myanmar: Yangon University of Distance Education

You probably know relatively little about the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (still also known as Burma in some countries), and if you are like me, you know even less about open and distance education in Myanmar.


Myanmar was ruled by a military dictatorship from 1962 to 2011. Many Western countries placed sanctions on Myanmar and as a result it was quite isolated until recently. General elections were held in 2010, and the military junta was dissolved a year later, but the military are still strongly in control, although a process of democratic liberalisation is under way. Nobel prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, recently legalized, won 43 of 45 parliamentary seats in parliamentary by-elections in 2012, sanctions have been withdrawn, and there is now much greater contact with Western and other countries.

Open and distance education in Myanmar

Yangon University of Distance Education

Yangon University of Distance Education

I am very grateful to Dr. Hla Tint, the Acting Rector of Yangon University of Distance Education, for sharing with me a recent paper he has written about open and distance learning in Myanmar. I recommend that you read the paper in full, but here is a brief summary:

The Higher Education System

  • there are currently 163 HE institutions, all currently funded by the government
  • in 1975, bachelors programs were offered through University Correspondence Courses (print supplemented by radio), in association with Yangon University (the main university at the time – Yangon was formerly called Rangoon by the British)
  • in 1992, UCC was upgraded to the University of Distance Education
  • in 1998 the name was changed to Yangon University of Distance Education, because another institution, Mandalay University of Distance Education, was created that year.

Student numbers

In 2012, there was a total of 471,000 students (out of a total population of 60 million). Of these 471,000 students, 284,000 (60%) were studying by distance education. Roughly 60,000 students a year graduate through the distance education programs, and course completion rates average 85%.

Delivery methods and technology

The two distance teaching universities have a total of 32 local learning centres, mostly attached to conventional universities, across the country. These centres provide access to labs, offer intensive face-to-face classes before exams, and act as exam centres.

Originally, the delivery methods included printed textbooks, study guides and 16 assignments per course. Today, the distance universities make extensive use of satellite broadcasting, with their own channel, with reception available in over 600 learning centres in schools, colleges and universities. In addition students have access to printed materials, audio and video tapes, and live broadcast teaching as well as more general television programs.

The Internet however is not accessible in many places in Myanmar and is expensive to use, and so is not in significant use to date by the distance teaching universities. Nevertheless Yangon University of Distance Education offers approximately 50 courses online, mainly in law.

Quality assurance

This seems to be work in progress. There is an annual symposium to draw up quality standards for distance education, and international exchange programs are being organized for faculty. The Centre for Distance Education (CDE), London University is working to prepare a project proposal  ”Capacity Development Initiative for Yangon University of Distance Education”. YUDE is also working with ICDE’s quality assurance standards.


I strongly recommend that you read the full paper (click here), but I am struck by the importance of distance education in Myanmar, where more than 60% of those who matriculate from high school take programs by distance. In 2011, 14% of a cohort went on to some form of tertiary education in Myanmar, so there is still a huge challenge in providing sufficient places in universities. In such circumstances, there is much greater scope for expansion of the system through distance education than through conventional institutions. The issue of course is quality and recognition of the degrees from the distance teaching universities, as well as the need to strengthen the school system so that more students matriculate.

Also I find the choice of technology interesting and highly appropriate given the high cost and limited availability of the Internet. Even when the Internet becomes more widely available, it will be difficult to achieve the economies of scale currently being achieved through the use of print and satellite broadcasting.

Myanmar is going through a very important transition, but it seems well placed to build on its past history of distance education.



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.