September 30, 2014

Writing an open textbook: a mid-term report on the technology

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Open textbooks free 2

I’m about half-way through writing my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’ I’ve done about five and a half chapters, and I would like to share my views on the underlying technology that I am using, because, while it does the job reasonably well, we are clearly in the Version 1.0 stage of software development, from an author’s perspective. I believe there is a major opportunity to develop a software authoring framework that fully exploits the open characteristics of a textbook, but we are not there yet.

Background

I’m writing this book more or less on my own, although I do have some support from an instructional designer and I’m anticipating getting some help with marketing once the book is complete. I’m also getting a lot of useful feedback, because I am publishing as the book is being developed (the first five chapters are already available here) and also publishing excerpts in this blog.

My main technical support is coming from BCcampus, which is managing a large open textbook project on behalf of the British Columbia provincial government. My book is not directly related to the provincial government-funded project, which at this stage is focused primarily on converting existing print textbooks to open, online versions. However, as the project advances, more open textbooks will need to be written from scratch. (For more on the BCcampus open textbook project project, see here.)

BCcampus has taken an ‘off-the-shelf’ open source authoring software ‘shell’ called Pressbooks, which in itself is based on WordPress. BCcampus has made some further adaptations to Pressbooks for the open textbooks that BCcampus is helping to develop. I have used the BCcampus version of Pressbooks to create my own textbook. However, anyone can use Pressbooks for free, if they wish to write an openly published book.

What I am trying to do

My goals are two-fold:

  • to openly publish a textbook on teaching in a digital age, aimed at teachers, instructors and faculty.
  • to explore ways to incorporate best teaching practice and an open education philosophy within the design of the book.

This is a report on where I’ve got to so far in authoring the book, using the Pressbooks/BCcampus template, and in particular on what I’m finding regarding the potential and limitations of the software for authoring an open textbook.

What works

It is extremely easy to start authoring with Pressbooks. After you log in to the Pressbooks main page, you can easily set up an account which is password protected. Once you have an account, you will be assigned a url which will take you to your admin page, from where you can author your book.

Anyone who has used WordPress for blogging will have no difficulty whatsoever in getting started in Pressbooks. If you already have a structure for the book in your mind, and know what you want to write, you can be writing within less than ten minutes of signing up with Pressbooks. You can also open accounts for others, such as co-authors, an editor, or an instructional designer, with password-protected access to the editing part.

Pressbooks allows you to work in private or to publish each chapter or section when ready. You can ‘export’ , in several versions, such as ePub, pdf or html, for free downloading. BCcampus is also making available, at cost, printed versions of their textbooks. The ‘exported’ version looks clean and replicates almost exactly the edited version, with embedded urls, diagrams, headings and indentation. The variety of exported formats enables use of the textbooks on various mobile devices and tablets. If the recommended technological structure is followed when writing and editing, the reader can easily navigate through the book in a variety of ways.

Thus, for basic book writing and publishing, Pressbooks is easy to use, comprehensive in the devices it can be used on, and pleasant to read.

Challenges

From the perspective however of an open textbook, I found the following challenges:

Lack of interactivity

Those of you used to using a learning management system are likely to be frustrated by the lack in Pressbooks of common features found within an LMS, such as ways to provide feedback on exercises, places where readers/students can add their own contributions, or places where monitored and edited discussions can take place. Thus some of the key opportunities to make a book more interactive and open are currently not available, without going outside the Pressbooks environment. There are two reasons for this.

1. Pressbooks was originally designed for supporting fiction writers, and as such works perfectly for them (providing they can manage to write easily in WordPress). If you want a straight read through a book, it is perfect, but this is not what you necessarily want with an educational textbook.

2. BCcampus has added some useful features, such as widgets that allow you to insert text boxes for learning objectives, student exercises, and key take-aways, but has had to disable the comment feature because the textbooks are likely to be used by many instructors with different classes. BCcampus is rightly worried that it would be confusing and overwhelming for multiple instructors if students across all the classes shared the same comment boxes. However, as an author, I want to integrate both the activities and the student responses to the activities, and above all I want comments and feedback on what I’ve written.

There are in fact really several distinct stages or uses of an open textbook:

  • book creation (which I am going through now), where feedback is needed by the author. At this stage, the comment feature is really essential. Ideally, it should be at the end of each chapter and part.
  • response from individual readers once the book is completed. I’m already getting these, as I’m publishing as I go. At least in the early days, feedback is again essential, and it would be quite manageable for the author to monitor the comments at this stage. However, over time, adoption by instructors, accumulated spam, and repetitious comments may lead the author to want to disable this feature.
  • adoption as part of a course. At this stage the comment feature needs to be disabled (or cleared), and replaced probably by a course web site, wiki or discussion forum linked specifically to a particular instructor and their course.

What I’d really like is a widget where I can just drop in a comment box in the right place, and the ability as an author to open, clear or disable it, as well as monitoring and where necessary editing it. It could be switched to open or private.

I have also explored some possible open source discussion forums or wikis, and computer-based test services, but these would have to sit outside the textbook, and I haven’t found a satisfactory service yet (although I haven’t looked very hard – suggestions welcome.)

The technological structure of the book

Unlike many online books that you will find on Kindle or iPads, Pressbooks does not output in discrete pages. The way it manages the structure of the book to enable fluent navigation by the reader is not immediately transparent to an author writing a book.

The two key features are Parts and Chapters. I assumed (incorrectly) that Parts were sub-units or sections of Chapters. This suited me, as I’m expecting a diverse audience with a wide range of prior knowledge. I assumed that many would not want to read a whole chapter on say design models, but may have a particular interest in some of the models and not in others. However, I made the basic mistake of not reading the BCcampus Authors’ Manual carefully before starting (and when I did read it, I did not understand it.) What I hadn’t realised was that Chapters link to Parts and the Parts are not intended to have much, if any, content.

Parts are really an introduction to the substance, a kind of organiser for the actual following content, which take place in the Chapters. Think of a novel: Part 1: 1969, Chapter 1: Boy meets girl. However, I rushed off and wrote Parts like sections of a chapter then cut and pasted each Part into a Chapter. I got half-way through writing the book before realising this was a mistake, thanks to a very helpful recent meeting with staff from BCcampus.

So I have ended up using a Part like an advance organiser for a chapter, and the Chapter feature for each section of a ‘Part’. This works well now, the navigation is much better, and it avoids the reader having to scroll down through an 8,000 word chapter. Some ‘Chapters’ in Pressbooks terminology are only a couple of paragraphs long and I have renamed them sections, with the Part containing the Chapter name. I also use the Part to state the purpose of the Chapter, what is covered in the chapter, and the key takeaways.

However, as you can see, the Pressbooks terminology of Parts and Chapters is really misleading. Worse, I spent two whole days cutting and repasting content I had already written in order to get the content into the right technological structure required by the software.

No mark-up facility

Unlike Word, an editor or a co-author cannot mark up drafts in Pressbooks (or WordPress for that matter – if there is a plug-in for this, please let me know.) This makes co-production of a book and getting feedback much more frustrating, especially as there is no comment feature.

If you are writing a co-edited or co-authored book, this is a major limitation, and a better strategy might be to initially edit in Google Docs or Word, then transfer everything when finished into Pressbooks or another publishing software shell. Even then, this is not a good solution because of the high risk of losing material during the transfer – and in any case, when is an open textbook ever finished? It should be a work in continuous updating.

Even for a single author, though, the inability to mark up drafts in Pressbooks is a considerable nuisance, especially if the comment feature is disabled. Not only my instructional designer, but also several readers who are following the development of the book, are copying sections from the Pressbook version into Word, marking up suggested corrections in Word, sending me the Word document, which I then go through then make any necessary changes in the Pressbooks version.

What is needed of course is a mark-up plug-in for WordPress, which would have much wider value than just open textbook authoring.

Limitations of WordPress

Some of these limitations are also limitations of writing and editing in WordPress. The feature for creating tables is so difficult to use that it is essentially useless. Some of the formatting doesn’t transfer when cutting and pasting to another screen page (which I have to do often), such as text alignment. I spend an enormous amount of time scrolling up to the top of the page, looking for the toolbox menu, to add urls, italics, lists, or indents, sometimes accidentally transferring out of the editing page and thus losing some of the more recent writing. (Apparently, in the new version of WordPress 4, the scrolling issue to get to the toolbar will be resolved – the toolbar will stay at the top of the screen, however far down you scroll).

However, I am spending far too much time on editing and not enough on creative writing. Editing is always a time-consuming but necessary activity when writing, but I really could do without technology frustrations when editing.

Conclusions

Pressbooks is a workable solution for writing an open textbook, but it works best if you want just a simple read through by the reader, in the manner of a traditional textbook. If though you want to make it more interactive, and open to comment, criticisms and substantive contributions from other people, then the current Pressbooks software is very limiting.

Pressbooks is a classic case of taking a new medium and merely transferring the format and structure of a previously existing medium. Although this is probably an essential and useful first step, what is really required is a complete re-design that fully exploits the characteristics or affordances of the new medium. For this to happen, though, a partnership between software engineers, potential authors and instructional designers is needed. However, there is a great opportunity here for creating truly innovative open source software for supporting open textbooks, if anyone has the time and resources to do this.

Authors such as myself also need to work out the difference (if any) between an open textbook and a learning management system. There are real difficulties in making everything in a course open, mainly because of hacking, spam and other external nuisances that can seriously disrupt a serious, engaged educational experience. The same applies to blogs and open textbooks. If the comment feature is too open it becomes overwhelmed with hacking and spam (I’m clearing about 50 bot-generated messages a day from my blog comment box – I don’t want to also have to spend this time keeping the comments on an open textbook under control.)

However, even accepting that an open textbook is not a substitute for an LMS, authors need to think carefully how the textbook can best be integrated or adopted within a course. Sample activities, suggestions for model answers, etc., can all be included. Above all, though, authors need to be clear when writing as to what will be done within the technological limitations of the textbook, what is best done outside the textbook, and how best to integrate these two elements.

I have to say I haven’t worked this out yet. It’s still a work in progress.

Over to you

As you can see, I am somewhat bumbling my way through the technology side of the writing, learning mainly through experience, although BCcampus has been more than helpful. I’d really like to hear though from other open textbook authors: is your experience similar or very different and if so why? Have you used different authoring software and how did that go?

Also, on the technology side, I’m still very open to other technology solutions, so long as they can be seamlessly integrated with Pressbooks. I have gone too far now to move to another software solution. But any suggestions welcome.

What UBC has learned about doing MOOCs

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Coursera certificate 2

Engle, W. (2104) UBC MOOC Pilot: Design and Delivery Vancouver BC: University of British Columbia

The University of British Columbia, a premier public research university in Canada, successfully delivered five MOOCs in the spring and summer of 2013, using the Coursera platform. This report is an evaluation of the experience.

The report is particularly valuable because it provides details of course development and delivery, including media used and costs. Also UBC has been developing online courses for credit for almost 20 years, so it is interesting to see how this has impacted on the design of their MOOCs.

The MOOCs

1. Game Theory I: K. Leyton Brown (UBC); M. Jackson and Y.Shoham (Stanford University)

2. Game Theory II: K. Leyton Brown (UBC); M. Jackson and Y.Shoham (Stanford University)

3. Useful Genetics: R. Redfield, UBC

4. Climate Literacy: S. Harris and S. Burch, UBC

5. Introduction to Systematic Program Design: G. Kizcales, UBC

In terms of comparability I’m going to treat Game Theory I and II as one MOOC, as combined they were about the same length as the other MOOCs (between 8-12 weeks)

Basic statistics

330,150 signed up (82,500 on average per course)

164,935 logged in at least once (41,000 per course)

12,031 took final exam (3,000 per course)

8,174 earned course certificate (2,000 per course)

60-70% already had a post-secondary degree

30-40% were North American, with participants from nearly every country in the world.

Course development

None of the instructors had taught an online course before, but were supported by instructional designers, media development staff, and academic assistants (graduate and undergraduate students).

One major difference between UBC MOOCs and its online credit courses (which are primarily LMS-based) was the extensive use of video, the main component of the MOOC pilot courses.

Video production

305 videos constituting a total of 65 hours were produced. Each MOOC used a different method of production:

  • Intensive studio (Climate Literacy)
  • Hybrid studio plus instructor desktop (Systematic Program Design)
  • Light studio production (Game Theory I and II)
  • Instructor desktop (Useful Genetics)

Web pages

All the MOOCs except Games Theory also included weekly modules as HTML-based web pages, which is a variation of the Coursera design default model. Altogether 98 HTML module pages were developed. The weekly modules were used to provide guidance to students on learning goals, amount of work expected, an overview of activities, and additional quiz or assignment help. (All standard practice in UBC’s LMS-based credit courses.)

Assessment

1,049 quiz questions were developed, of which just over half were graded.

There were four peer assessments in total across all the MOOCs.

Course delivery

As well as the faculty member responsible for each MOOC, graduate and undergraduate academic assistants were a crucial component of all courses, with the following responsibilities:

  • directly assisting learners
  • troubleshooting technical problems
  • conducting quality assurance activities

There was very little one-on-one interaction between the main instructor and learners, but academic assistants monitored and moderated the online forum discussions.

Costs

As always, costing is a difficult exercise. Appendix B of the report gives a pilot total of $217,657, but this excludes academic assistance or, perhaps the most significant cost, instructor time.

Working from the video production costs ($95,350) and the proportion of costs (44%) devoted to video production in Figure 1 in the report, I estimate the direct cost at $216,700, or approximately $54,000 per MOOC, excluding faculty time and co-ordination support, but including academic assistance.

However, the range of cost is almost as important. The video production costs for Climate Literacy, which used intensive studio production, were more than six times the video production costs of Systematic Program Design (hybrid studio + desktop).

MOOCs as OERs

  • the UBC instructors are using their MOOC materials in their own on-campus, for-credit classes in a flipped classroom model
  • courses are left open and active on Coursera for self-paced learning
  • porting of video materials as open access YouTube videos
  • two courses (Climate Literacy and Useful Genetics) added Creative Commons licenses for re-use

Challenges

  • copyright clearance (Coursera owns the copyright so third party copyright needs to be cleared)
  • higher than expected time demands on all involved
  • iterative upgrades to the Coursera platform
  • partner relationship management (UBC + Coursera + Stanford University) was time-consuming.
  • training and managing academic assistants, especially time management
  • the Coursera platform limited instructors’ ability to develop desired course activities
  • Coursera’s peer assessment functionality in particular was limiting

Lessons

  • UBC’s prior experience in credit-based online learning led to better-designed, more interactive and more engaging MOOCs
  • learners always responded positively to instructor ‘presence’ in forums or course announcements
  • MOOC students were motivated by grades
  • MOOC students were willing to critically engage in critiquing instructors’ expertise and teaching
  • open publishing via MOOCs is a strong motivator for instructors
  • MOOCs require significant investment.

Conclusion

All the MOOCs received positive feedback and comments from students. UBC was able to gain direct experience in and knowledge of MOOCs and look at how this might inform both their for-credit on-campus and online teaching. UBC was also able to bring its experience in for-credit online learning to strengthening the design of MOOCs. Lastly it was able to make much more widely known the quality of UBC instructors and course materials.

Comment

First, congratulations to UBC for

  • experimenting with MOOCs
  • conducting the evaluation
  • making the report publicly available.

It is clear from the comments of participants in the appendices that at least some of the participants (we don’t know how many) were very pleased with the courses. As usual though with evaluation reports on MOOCs, there is no assessment of learning other than the end of course quiz-based tests. I don’t care too much about completion rates, but some measurement of student satisfaction would have been helpful.

It is also significant that UBC has now decided to move from Coursera to edX as its platform for MOOCs. edX, which is open source and allows partners to modify and adapt the platform, provides the flexibility that Coursera lacked, despite its many iterative ‘improvements’.

This also demonstrates the hubris of MOOC platform developers in ignoring best design principles in online learning when they designed their platforms. It is clear that UBC designers were able to improve the design of their MOOCs by drawing on prior for-credit online experience, but also that the MOOC platforms are still very limited in enabling the kind of learning activities that lead to student engagement and success.

The UBC report also highlighted the importance (and cost) of providing some form of learner support in course delivery. The use of academic assistants in particular clearly made the MOOCs more interactive and engaging, as well as limited but effective interventions from the instructors themselves, once again supported by (and confirming) prior research on the importance of instructor presence for successful for-credit online learning.

I very much appreciate the cost data provided by UBC, and the breakdown of production and delivery costs is extremely valuable, but I have to challenge the idea of providing any costs that exclude the time of the instructors. This is by far the largest and most important cost in MOOCs and the notion that MOOCs are free of instructor cost is to fly in the face of any respectable form of economics.

It is clear that MOOCs are more expensive to date per hour of study time than LMS-based for-credit online courses. We still do not have enough data to give a precise figure, and in any case, as the UBC study shows, cost is very much a factor of design. However, even without instructors costs, the UBC MOOCs at $54,000 each for between 8-12 weeks are already more than the average cost of a 13 week for-credit LMS-based online course, including instructor time.

This is partly due to the increased instructor time in preparation/production, but also to the higher cost of video production.  I am not against the use of video in principle, but it must add value. Using it for content transmission when this can be done so much more cheaply textually and/or by audio is a waste of the medium’s potential (although perhaps more motivating for the instructor).

More importantly, every institution contemplating MOOCs needs to do a cost-benefit exercise. Is it better to invest in MOOCs or credit-based online learning or both? If MOOCs are more expensive, what are the added benefits they provide and does this more than make up for not only the extra cost, but the lost opportunity of investing in (more) credit-based online learning or other forms of campus-based learning? I know what my answer would be.

 

Transforming university teaching and learning: UBC’s strategy for flexible learning

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UBC campus, Vancouver BC

UBC campus, Vancouver BC

Flexible Learning Implementation Team (2014) Flexible Learning – Charting a Strategic Vision for UBC (Vancouver Campus. Vancouver BC: Office of the Provost, University of British Columbia

The University of British Columbia is one of Canada’s premier research universities with almost 60,000 students. It usually features within the top 30 universities worldwide in university rankings.

For the last 18 months, UBC has been developing a comprehensive strategy for teaching and learning for the future, and last week issued a report on its vision and how it plans to implement that vision. Although Flexible Learning is the term UBC has chosen to describe this strategy, it is in fact far more comprehensive and wide ranging than just blended or fully online learning. It is really about the transformation of teaching and learning in response to local, regional and global changes and challenges, based on a substantial amount of prior research, internal discussion, and input from external consultants (declaration of interest: I played a very small part in some of the early discussions of strategy).

First, the breaking news, then a summary of the main points from the strategy document.

Breaking news

This really represents the first concrete actions resulting from this strategic initiative.

  1. Research report published on UBC’s first four MOOCs: These MOOCs were delivered through the Coursera platform. I will cover this report in a separate blog post.
  2. Moving from Coursera to edX: UBC has now joined edX as a Charter Member, giving it a seat on edX’s Academic Advisory Board. UBC will develop four new MOOCs for delivery on edX in 2014-2015.
  3. Revamping Continuing and Professional Education: UBC has established, within the Provost’s Office, a new unit to work in close partnership with Faculties in developing both applied and access programs. More on this and how it affects the current Division of Continuing Studies later in this post.
  4. Improving the learning technology ecosystem: basically a response to widespread faculty disenchantment with the implementation of the latest version of UBC’s LMS, Blackboard Connect.

However, these four developments are literally the tip of an iceberg, which is much larger and more significant.

The strategic vision

As always, I recommend a careful reading of the whole 22 page document, even though it is not the easiest of reads. Any summary diminishes the complexity of the discussion, because there are so many inter-related themes and developments to which the university is attempting to respond. I provide this summary though in the hope that it will spike your interest enough to make the effort, as I see this document as one of the most significant for the future of public higher education in Canada – and elsewhere.

What does the university mean by flexible learning?

From the document (p.2)

We define Flexible Learning as UBC’s response to the opportunities and challenges presented by rapid advances in information and communication technologies, informed by the results of learning research and motivated by the objectives of improving student learning, extending access to UBC and strengthening university operating effectiveness.

See below for more detail on what that actually means.

What’s driving the change?

  • learner and employer expectations: need for a flexible workforce, greater flexibility in delivery and offerings, and more emphasis on measurable outcomes
  • demographics: increased global demand, with the local population of students older and often working
  • policy of governments (generally): growing reliance on tuition revenue; a belief that online learning is cheaper
  • disruptive technologies: MOOCs, cloud, mobile, adaptive learning, automated assessment, learning analytics…..

Market segmentation

Different categories of learners:

  • traditional university students (65% of the market), younger, mainly ‘commuting’: want rich campus-based learning experiences
  • convenience-driven degree-seekers: older, working, want blended/online learning
  • practitioners: seeking credentials for professional development; able to pay; under-represented to date at UBC
  • growth learners: seeking non-credentialed learning; a large and growing market segment.

All segments want more flexibility, both in delivery and range of content offerings.

Main objectives (for flexible learning)

  1. improved student learning
  2. expanded access to UBC content
  3. greater operating effectiveness

Main strategies

1. Strengthening UBC’s traditional role: through:

  • blended learning (including integration of MOOC content)
  • improving the campus experience and more personalization of learning through more modular programming
  • strategic academic program transformation

2. Revenue growth: through:

  • strategic expansion of continuing/professional education, especially applied master’s programs, certificates, badges
  • expanding access through ‘bridging’, e.g. PLA, MOOCs, summer programs

3. Academic partnerships (joining edX is one example)

Governance and management

The UBC Board and Executive approved the outline plan in 2013. Two teams were established within the Provost’s Office:

  • a leadership team, responsible for developing vision, strategy and policies, chaired by the Provost, with eight members
  • an implementation team, with another eight members, chaired by a Vice Provost.

Support is also provided by staff from the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology and from the IT Division, as well as designated contact people within each Faculty.

UBC has committed a total of $5 million ($1 million already spent) to support this initiative. (The total UBC annual operating budget is over $1 billion).

Comment

I’m watching this as someone completely outside the university. UBC is a very large and complex organization, once described by one former Provost as being managed by 12 barons all plotting to become king (although the climate is very different today). I cannot judge how far the reality of what’s happening on the ground differs from the vision, and in any case it is still very early days.

However, it is important to stress that this is a university-wide initiative (at least for the main Vancouver campus – UBC also has a semi-autonomous and much smaller campus in the interior of the province.) The strategy seems to have widespread support at the senior executive level, and a lot of momentum resulting from an infusion of significant money but more importantly as a result of widespread discussion and consultation within the university. Certainly the blended learning component is already getting a lot of traction, with some major re-designs of large undergraduate classes already in progress. How all this affects though the main body of the faculty and students at the hard edge of teaching and learning is impossible for me to judge.

The establishment of a new ‘hub’ within the Provost’s office for continuing and professional education (CPE) is particularly interesting since UBC has long had a strong and extensive Division of Continuing Studies, which offers a wide range of non-credit programming. However,

  • the ability to re-purpose existing content from credit courses into certificates, badges and non-credentialed offerings such as MOOCs,
  • the growing market for professional masters programs, especially online,
  • the increasing reconfiguration of higher education as a continuous lifelong learning escalator rather than a series of different, discrete floors (bachelors, masters, doctorates, non-credit),
  • the opportunities for revenue generation flowing directly back to the faculties,

all make essential a rethinking of the whole CPE activities of a university.

At the same time, the Division of Continuing Studies at UBC, as elsewhere, has many staff with a range of special skills and knowledge, such as

  • marketing,
  • direct access to employers and industry (often through the hiring of working professionals as part-time instructors),
  • the ability to identify and take risks with emerging content areas,
  • experience in operating in a highly market-driven, competitive cost-recovery/profit environment.

These are not attributes currently within the capacity or even interest of most academic departments. It will be an interesting challenge to see how the knowledge and experience of the Division of Continuing Studies can best be integrated with the new initiative, and how the new development in the Provost’s Office affects the operation of the Division of Continuing Studies.

Another critical factor is the appointment of a new President, who has pledged support for the strategy. However, he also said on his inauguration that the university will increase its base funding for research by at least $100-million. He did not specify though where the money would come from. I leave you to compare that to the $5 million allocated to this initiative and to judge how much impact finding another $100 million base funding for research might have on teaching and learning at UBC. I know, it’s not a zero sum game, but….

Overall, though, I find it heartening that UBC is showing such leadership and initiative in grappling with the major forces now impacting on public universities. It has a vision and a plan for teaching and learning in the future, that looks at teaching, technology, students and the changing external environment in an integrated and thoughtful manner, which in itself is a major accomplishment. It will be fascinating to see how all this actually plays out over time.

Is there a Canadian market for American online programs?

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© Wikipedia, 2014

Image: © Wikipedia, 2014

Identifying the market

I got a phone call last week from an international consultancy company contracted on behalf of a major U.S. state university, wanting to know if I thought there was a Canadian market for U.S. online degrees. Since I didn’t get paid for my advice, I’m willing to share it with anyone who’s interested. (I do find it annoying that universities will pay large sums to general business consultants such as Price Waterhouse, KPMG, Accenture, etc., who then expect professionals in the field to do their work for them for free.)

So I will share with you the short answer I gave to the consultants, then the long one which only you have access to!

The short answer is yes, but only in niche markets. This means doing careful market research (not just ringing up a few experts), developing a strong business plan, keeping tuition fees relatively low compared with those at the top end of the market in the USA, and being nimble, in that the market will not last long if they are successful, because Canadian institutions will eventually try to take that market back.

Now for the long answer.

Why Canada is not an easy market for foreign online programs

I don’t have any figures, but there are certainly some Canadian students already taking online degrees from U.S. institutions (if you are one of them, I’d be interested in your experience.) Why would they do that, you might ask? Well,

  • if they want to get a job in the USA or work for an American company in Canada
  • if there is no Canadian university offering the program either face-to-face locally or online
  • because they think a big name U.S. university will do a better job than their local Canadian universities.

I’m not saying they are right to think that, but the whole question of comparative quality in post-secondary educations, either in Canada or the USA, is so fraught and subjective that potential students still have a very hard job making those kinds of decisions.

However, for that very reason, better the devil you know. In general, I would argue that most potential students in Canada will look to one of their local universities as their first choice, for several reasons:

  • Cost. Tuition fees are generally lower in Canada in absolute terms, but also Canadians may be eligible for grants and scholarships for study, which probably will not apply to online programs offered by a program from the USA (although again there are exceptions.)
  • Quality. Nearly all Canadian universities are publicly funded and accredited by the provincial government. There are of course differences in status, but the system is simple enough for most Canadians to be aware of these differences, and the variation between institutions in Canada is nowhere near as great as in the much larger and much more diverse US higher education system. In particular, distance and online education in the USA has been tarnished much more than in Canada by private, for profit diploma mills, making many Canadians suspicious then of any online programs offered from the USA
  • Access. In general, most Canadians can get access to the programs they need from one or more of their local universities. 51% of Canadians go on from high school to university, and 60% to some form of publicly-funded post-secondary education. There are already roughly one million course enrollments a year in online courses from Canadian post-secondary institutions, or roughly about 20-25 per cent of all course enrollments

So the Canadian market for post-secondary education in general is what marketers call ‘mature’ and even online learning, while not mature, is certainly not in its infancy in Canada. Many Canadian universities already offer a range of online programs, both for credit and for non-credit.

For instance, there are several online/distance MBAs (Athabasca University, Queen’s/Cornell, Laurentian, for instance) and UBC has been running several very successful online masters programs in education, creative writing and health sciences. This is a market where institutions can more than cover their costs within the current range of government-regulated tuition fees; indeed UBC has been able to add new research faculty as a result of some their online masters programs.

The Canadian Virtual University (CVU), which is a consortium of 11 universities from across Canada, lists over 2,000 online courses from its members, including a total of 57 online masters programs. There are 16 online masters programs in Ontario, Canada’s largest province (with 20 universities). Of the online masters currently available from Ontario institutions, one third are in education, one third in business or leadership, and one third in health or social work (see Ontario Online Learning Portal for Students). There are a few other universities in Canada that are not members of the CVU or in Ontario that also offer online programs, and the number grows each year. Thus there is already a significant Canadian university (and college) ‘presence’ in the online learning area.

Furthermore once a U.S. program starts attracting large numbers of Canadian students, this is likely to draw a response from the Canadian institutions. This happened in British Columbia in the 1990s, when a large number of teachers started taking distance education masters’ programs from Washington State institutions such as Gonzaga University, because there was little available in British Columbia. It took a few years but the B.C. institutions eventually responded and the number of teachers taking out of province online programs is now very much reduced.

Lastly there are more subtle cultural barriers. Canada is not so different from the USA as Canadians like to believe, but there are differences, and they are important. Our laws and government regulations for instance are different. We have different iconic references, different national symbols, a different racial mix. This means content does not always transfer as seamlessly as you would think for countries sharing a similar language and continent. This is not an insurmountable obstacle, but it does require a certain sensitivity to ‘Canadian-ness’ that is not always there in the USA. However, it is probably too costly to adapt existing materials for a specifically Canadian market.

So there are several reasons why some caution would be needed in marketing online programs from the USA for a Canadian market (or anywhere else, such as the U.K. or Australia).

Why there is still a market for foreign online programs in Canada

But Canadian universities should not be complacent. Canadian institutions have been slower than their counterparts in the USA in entering the online professional masters’ market. There are many gaps in the availability of post-graduate online programs in Canada, especially in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) areas.

For instance, in Ontario there are no online masters’ programs in food and agriculture, humanities (except Design from OCAD), social sciences, math, science, law or engineering. The situation would be similar or worse in the other provinces. In particular, despite the CVA, which covers only 11 of the 80 or so universities in Canada, there is no national portal for Canadian online courses, so potential students have a hard time looking for online programs offered out of province.

Secondly, should Harvard, Stanford or MIT start offering for-credit online programs, there would certainly be a large take-up in Canada of such programs. For the still prestigious, Tier 1 research state universities, such as the University of California, Arizona State University or Penn State, brand recognition in Canada would be less compelling if there are suitable Canadian alternatives, although for graduate programs, many Canadian students might still be interested.

Lastly, good marketing is likely to attract potential students in Canada who may well not be aware that similar programs are already available in Canada where they do exist. Even as a so-called expert in Canadian online learning, I was unaware of most of the programs listed in the CVA and Contact North portals. Canadian universities are still remarkably provincially focused when it comes to marketing online programming. Which brings me to my next point.

Why don’t Canadian institutions market online programs in the USA?

Well, some do, but not many, and there are good reasons for this.

First the U.S. accreditation system is byzantine and bizarre, and totally ill-adapted to the move to online, distance education, but without accreditation from one of the regional accreditation agencies in the U.S., any Canadian online program would not be recognized for financial assistance, credit transfer or by many employers. Indeed (although the federal regulations are currently under discussion) it may be illegal to offer programs to students within a state without approval from that state (and to get approval you may need a ‘physical presence.’) Despite the very large cost in getting regional accreditation, some specialist Canadian institutions, such as Athabasca University, have done so. I’d be interested to know though if they feel it was worth it, in terms of the numbers of U.S. students it has attracted. (Yes, you are correct: the U.S.A and Canada are partners in a free trade association called NAFTA, but it doesn’t apply to education – or forestry, for that matter.)

Second, the reverse is true regarding brand recognition and local preferences. Many U.S. citizens don’t even know where Canada is, let alone know whether the University of Waterloo is a bona fide institution and not a diploma mill. (I once shared an airport shuttle bus in Los Angeles with two American businessmen complaining they needed a passport to go to Toronto. ‘Anyone would think it was in another country,’ one said. I’m not making it up, and for British Columbian’s it may well be.)

So Canada, and Canadian institutions, do not have a strong enough brand image for most Americans, although some institutions, such as the University of Windsor, have done an excellent job in building partnership with institutions just across the border in Michigan and Detroit – but not, so far, in online learning.

Why these are the wrong questions

The real question should be (for both Canadian and U.S. online program developers): Is there an international market for online professional masters’ programs, to which the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’

It really doesn’t matter what country a student is in. If the program being offered meets a need, and the student can afford it, then they will take it, whether it comes from the USA, Canada, Australia, Spain, India or Brazil. Brand recognition helps. Canadian public institutions produce high quality, government accredited online programs. There is no distinction in the degree transcripts whether the program is offered at a distance or on campus. With its rather monolithic public higher education system, it would have an advantage if it could only market a Canadian rather than a local or provincial brand (but then it has the same problem in attracting international students to on-campus programs).

U.S. states trying to regulate whether students can take a program from out of state are like King Canute trying to stop the tide from coming in. All you can do is say ‘Caveat Emptor’ – buyer beware.

One way round the ‘not invented here’ attitude to out of state or out of country programs though is to develop a partnership with local institutions of a similar ‘status’ level. The University of British Columbia developed a very successful partnership with Tec de Monterrey in Mexico for a graduate program in educational technology. UBC developed most of the content, but the program was available in Spanish from Tec de Monterrey and in English from UBC. UBC’s offering of the program drew almost 30 per cent of its enrollments initially from English-speaking students from other countries all round the world. Similarly, Tec de Monterrey marketed its program in South America as well as in Mexico. Queen’s University in Canada has partnered with Cornell University in the USA to market a joint online MBA. These partnerships help to get round the accreditation issues.

Admission of international students to an online program can be more of a problem, as can issues of security in terms of exams and assessment, but these are not insuperable problems. If the institution already has an admission policy for on-campus international students this should apply just as well to online students from another country. Local proctoring (again using a partner institution) can help with examinations, but even better is to use authentic assessments where students have to apply their knowledge locally or within their own work or social context. This form of assessment is ideal for professional masters ‘ programs.

Furthermore, it helps when initially planning an online program to take into consideration that there is probably an international market (indeed, this helps with marketing the program even locally). This means choosing content carefully so it can work in a wide variety of international contexts, and to take advantage of the different perspectives from the international students.

Lastly, when developing a business model, the inclusion of international students can make the difference between loss and profit, because in well-designed online programs, the marginal cost of each additional student should more than cover the delivery costs. UBC found it did not need to charge a premium tuition fee for international students, because the business model depended on getting enough enrollments at the government-regulated tuition fee (for domestic students) to break even. The international students were an important contributor to breaking even without having to charge them a premium price. So pricing policy is also an important factor.

In conclusion

Yes, there is a market for international students in online programs, and there will be a market in Canada for specific professional masters offered by well-recognised and legitimate U.S. universities, provided they fill a gap not currently being met by Canadian institutions – and at the moment there are many such gaps.

However, it may be a mistake to focus on marketing to specific countries. Institutions will (even in Canada) respond relatively quickly to what they may feel as foreign incursions into their market. The world market (especially for programs in the English language) is large enough to attract more than enough high quality students to credit-based programs – just look at the response to MOOCs, which don’t offer formal qualifications. The trick is good marketing, making sure the materials take into consideration an international market and are not focused on specifically local or national issues, and having a good business plan. And partnership with foreign institutions would be a wise move. So while not easy, it is feasible, but if the reason is solely to make money, then it will, ironically, be a harder sell. Students will pick up on that remarkably quickly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Resources and the design of teaching and learning

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The story so far

Chapter 5 of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ is about the design of teaching and learning, which I am currently writing and publishing as I go.

I started Chapter 5 by suggesting that instructors should think about design through the lens of constructing a comprehensive learning environment in which teaching and learning will take place. I have started to work through the various components of a learning environment, focusing particularly on how the digital age affects the way we need to look at some of these components.

I started by looking at how the characteristics of our learners are changing, and followed that by examining how our perspectives on content are being influenced by the digital age, how both intellectual and practical skills can be developed to meet the needs of a digital age, and the importance of learner support within the learning environment. In subsequent posts, I will cover resources and assessment respectively.

In this post, I examine how resources can and do influence the learning environment and ultimately the design of teaching and learning.

Resources

Resources 2Resources available to teachers/instructors and the learners are a critical component of an effective learning environment. As in the case of learner characteristics, an instructor may not have a lot of control over the resources available to him or her, but resources (or the lack of them) will impact a great deal on the design of teaching. Fighting for appropriate resources is often one of the most challenging tasks for many teachers and instructors. At the same time, of all the components, resources reflect some of the greatest changes resulting from a digital age.

Teaching assistance

I define teaching assistance as people such as adjunct or sessional instructors, teaching assistants, librarians, and technical support staff, including instructional designers, media producers and IT technical support. An institution may have policies or guidelines about how many support staff an instructor can have for a set number of students.

It is important to think about the best way to use supporting staff. In universities, the tendency is to chop a large class into sections, with each section with its own sessional instructor or teaching assistant, which then operate relatively independently, with often large differences in the quality of the teaching in different sections, depending on the experience of the instructor.

However, new technologies enable the teaching to be organised differently and more consistently. For instance, a senior professor may determine the overall curriculum and assessment strategy, and working with an instructional designer, provide the overall design of a course. Sessionals and/or teaching assistants then are hired to deliver the course either face-to-face or online or more often a mix of both, under the supervision of the senior professor (see the National Center for Academic Transformation for examples). Flipped classrooms are another way to organise resources differently (see Blended Learning in Introductory Psychology as an example.)

Furthermore, online learning may bring in more revenues through government grants for extra students and/or direct tuition revenue, so there may be economies of scale which would enable the institution to hire more sessionals from the extra revenues generated by the additional online students. Indeed, there are now examples of fully online masters programs more than covering the full cost, including the hiring of research professors to teach the program, from tuition revenues alone (the University of British Columbia’s online Master in Educational Technology is one example.) Thus design can influence resources, as well as the other way round.

Facilities

This refers primarily to physical facilities available to an instructor and students, such as classrooms, labs, and the library. These may provide constraints on the teaching, because for example the physical set-up of a lecture hall or classroom may limit opportunities for discussion or project work, or an instructor may be forced to organise the teaching around three hours of lecturing and six hours of labs per week, to ‘fit’ with broader institutional requirements for classroom allocations (see How Online Learning is Going to Affect Classroom Design regarding attempts to re-design classrooms for the digital age.)

Online learning can free instructors and students from such rigid physical constraints, but there is still a need for structure and organization of units or modules of teaching, even or especially when teaching online (see Is content still important in a digital age?).

Technology

The development of new technologies, and especially learning management systems, lecture capture, and social media,have radical implications for the design of teaching and learning. This will be discussed in much more depth in Chapter 7, but for the purpose of describing an effective learning environment, the technologies available to an instructor can contribute immensely to creating interactive and engaging learning environments for students. However, it is important to emphasise that technology is just one component within any effective learning environment, and needs to be balanced and integrated with all the other components.

The instructor’s time

The greatest and most precious resource of all! Building an effective learning environment is an iterative process, but in the end, the teaching design, and to some extent the learning environment as a whole, will be dependent on the time available from the instructor (and his or her team) for teaching. The less time available, the more restrictive the learning environment is likely to be, unless the instructor’s time is very carefully managed. Again, though, we shall see in Chapter 7 that good design takes into account the time available for teaching.

Resources, class size and control

Nothing drives an instructor to distraction more than trying to juggle with what are perceived as inadequate resources. Certainly, if a teacher or instructor is allocated a class of 200 students, with no additional teaching support, and an expectation that the class will be taught as a unit with six one hour lectures a week allocated to a large lecture hall, then the instructor is going to have difficulty creating a rich and effective learning environment, because the lack of resources limits the options. On the other hand, an instructor with 30 students, access to a wide range of technology, freedom to organise and structure the curriculum, and with support from an instructional designer and a web designer, has the luxury of exploring a range of different designs and possible learning environments.

Nevertheless it is probably when resources are most scarce that the most creativity is needed to break out of traditional teaching models. New technology, if properly used and available, does enable even large classes with otherwise few resources to be designed with a relatively rich learning environment. This will be explored in more depth in the next chapter. At the same time, expectations need to be realistic. Providing adequate learner support with an instructor:student ratio of 1:200 will always be a challenge. Improvements are possible through re-design – but not miracles. (For more on increasing productivity through online teaching, see Productivity and Online Learning Redux.)

Over to you

Your views, comments and criticisms are always welcome. In particular:

  • are there other resources that influence the design of an effective learning environment that I should have included?
  • Winston Churchill once said ‘We shape our buildings and in turn our buildings shape us.’ To what extent do you think online learning can free us of some of the constraints that buildings impose on the design of teaching and learning? What new constraints does online learning bring in terms of design?
  • how do you feel about the whole issue of teaching assistance? I have grave reservations myself about the use of students as teaching assistants in universities, in terms of the quality of the teaching. I also believe that sessionals and adjunct instructors are badly treated in terms of how they are managed. In British Columbia we have had two Supreme Court cases and a major teachers’ strike over class size and composition, and in particular how much help school teachers should receive for coping with students with learning disabilities. But by bringing in less qualified (and cheaper) support for instructors, do we strengthen or weaken the learning environment for students?

Or any other comments on resources as a critical component of a learning environment, please!

Next up

Assessment as a key component of an effective learning environment.