April 23, 2014

Synergies between online learning, on-campus teaching and flexible learning

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Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

Kiczcales, G. (2014) Online to improve on-campus Digital Learning Blog, UBC, Vancouver BC, April 14.

UBC’s flexible learning strategy

Nearly two weeks ago, Eric Grimson, the Chancellor of MIT, and I spent a day at the University of British Columbia consulting on the university’s strategy for flexible learning. I’ve been somewhat constrained by a confidentiality agreement, as UBC’s flexible learning strategy is still at the development stage and has yet to be formally approved, but one of the Provost’s team responsible for developing its strategy, Gregor Kiczales, has an interesting blog that he describes as a conversation about digitization of the channel between educators and learners, and what that means for university education. 

The impact of online learning on the campus

In his most recent post, Gregor discusses ‘one of the most important themes they [Eric and I] both stressed: the main reason for a university like UBC to explore online learning is to improve the on-campus learning experience.’ Certainly it was one of the points I made, that a combination of online learning and campus teaching will offer benefits to many students, by increasing flexibility and also by enabling instructors to focus on what the campus experience does best. However, it is not in my view the main reason for online learning.

I was arguing for more analysis to be made of what the campus can offer that cannot be provided more conveniently or more effectively online, with the implication that much of what we currently do on campus would actually be better replaced by online learning. What I would challenge in particular is that discussion is best done face-to-face. My experience is that very high levels of academic discussion are equally possible online as in class.

This brings me back to my law of equal substitution, which basically states that almost all teaching and learning outcomes can be just as effectively accomplished on campus or online, given good course design, although there will always be exceptions. In general, though, what determines the appropriateness of either mode are non-pedagogical factors, such as comparative costs, the differing needs of different types of students, the training of instructors, and the resources available.

I certainly believe that for young students straight out of high school, the social, sporting and cultural aspects of a campus are very important. Again, though, I question whether there is sufficient focus on these aspects today, especially in commuter universities, where a majority of the students travel in for lectures then go home. If the campus experience is so important for learning, then universities such as UBC need to really change the first and second year experience, with a move away from very large, impersonal lectures to more small group learning and more direct contact with senior research faculty. In other words, the current model, which keeps classes small for post-graduate students and large for first and second year undergraduates, should be inverted.

UBC is attempting to break up the large lecture classes, but the the cost of doing this, and the willingness or otherwise of faculty to spend more time with undergraduate students, are real challenges. It may be more realistic to focus on related academic and cultural activities that lie outside of formal courses or programs, and on those things, such as hands-on access to equipment, that cannot be done online.

Horses for courses (or rather, different courses for different horses)

The other point that really needs to be made is that public institutions such as UBC now face a much more diverse student population, with very different needs. Thus UBC has both young residential and young commuting students, local, national and international students, pre-university, undergraduate, graduate and lifelong learners, students with different levels of English language ability, gregarious and shy learners, and on and on. Every one of these groups probably needs a different range of options regarding the campus experience and the delivery of learning.

Thus I would argue that UBC also needs to focus just as much on fully online learning, or distance education, as on blended learning, or on improving the campus, as important as that is. In particular the lifelong learning market is growing rapidly, and is increasingly important economically in a highly competitive knowledge-based economy. Furthermore, lifelong learners are able and willing to pay the direct costs of for instance professional masters programs or more specific short courses or modules leading to badges or certificates. Such lifelong learners have already been through the campus experience, already have the fundamental lab or studio skills from hands-on learning, and can therefore handle more indirect forms of teaching, such as simulations or remote labs. It is for such learners that online learning is particularly appropriate.

Yes, much more flexibility

Thus UBC is absolutely right to focus on providing learning flexibly, i.e. in a wide variety of ways, to meet the diverse needs of students. In the end, students should be able to choose from a variety of ways of studying, while meeting the same teaching and learning objectives. This will require various mixes of online and classroom teaching within the same course or program. The technology to some extent does allow this ‘personalized’ learning, but it also needs to be accompanied by a major re-thinking of course design and how students can access learning, within a realistic cost framework.

Doing it right

Lastly, I have to say that in my view, UBC is way ahead of most universities in considering the impact of technology, not just on the campus, but on the whole learning experience and in particular the likely impact of changing markets on the university. I admire the way it is addressing these challenges. Thus my one day at UBC after an eleven year absence was a particularly appropriate way to conclude my career as a consultant.

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.’

Comments

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

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.

Background

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.

Comments

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.