October 9, 2015

Is there a future in online learning?

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Is there a future for instructional designers?

Is there a future for instructional designers?

I hope all readers of this blog in the northern hemisphere had a good break and are looking forward to a new academic year. Your focus is going to be in getting down to work on reasonably well defined tasks, such as course design, or studying for a higher degree.

Building a career

Among you though will be a few who are wondering about your longer-term future. I am frequently asked for advice about ‘next career moves’ by people working in, or wanting to work in, the field of online learning. Here are some of the questions I get asked:

  • Where are the best jobs in online learning?
  • What qualifications do I need?
  • What should my next job be after this one?
  • My position has been terminated – what should I do next?
  • How do I move into a senior management position where I can make strategic decisions about learning technology?

The answer to these questions are usually very specific. They depend on a person’s personality, qualifications, and experience. But there are also some general issues regarding a career in online learning, educational technology or instructional design that are worth discussing and which may help people to make appropriate decisions about their future.

There is no (long-term) future in being an online learning specialist

This may come as a surprise, because online learning is booming, and there is currently great demand for people with experience in online learning. However, it is a mistake to think the future will be like the past or even the present. In particular, it would be a mistake to think that online learning will be some esoteric branch of teaching and learning requiring specialism. What is happening is that, while the proportion of online learning compared to face-to-face teaching is increasing, and will vary according to context, online learning is becoming increasingly an integral part of teaching and learning. Thus, in the future, online learning will not be a separate activity, but one component within a wide range of decisions about teaching and learning.

A second reason is only just surfacing, but we have seen in recent weeks concern being expressed about the decreasing amount of resources being spent on faculty and instructors, and in turn a greater proportion of expenditure going into ‘administration’. Part of this concern is due to the growth of specialty learning technology units, which are usually staffed mainly by non-academic categories of staff, such as managers/directors, instructional designers, web designers, media specialists, student advisors, etc. Some of these units have over 60 staff and a budget of more than $10 million a year.

This is part of a much larger problem, which is the relatively low number of tenured faculty who spend increasingly smaller amounts of time teaching, and their replacement by short-term, contract or adjunct instructors. Neither type of instructors are trained or qualified as ‘teachers’ but as subject experts, which in turn has resulted in more and more non-academic support staff being hired to support them as more and more teaching moves online.

However, the dynamic of post-secondary institutions is such that this direction could and probably will change dramatically. In the future, we will need instructors who have the skills to decide when and how to use online learning as part of their jobs, and not see online learning as a specialty of someone else.

We are still a long way from that, and over the next few years there will still be demand for specialists in online learning, and there will always be a need for a much smaller number of specialists doing research and development on new technologies, but these will be relatively few in numbers. More importantly it would be a mistake to think that you can in future build a lifelong career just specialising in online learning. It will be just one of several ways of delivering teaching.

The lack of a career path

Ah, you may say, but even if online learning becomes an integral part of regular teaching, will there not still be a need for instructional designers, educational technologists and media specialists? Probably, but given that they will need to be funded from within the overall academic budget for teaching and learning, there is likely to be continuous pressure, especially from faculty, to keep the numbers of such supporting staff down. In particular, there is unlikely to be a clear career path for such support staff.

I had an enormous battle at one university to get a reclassification of instructional designers. Instructional designers did not fit into any of the HR classification systems. I wanted them classified as academic staff – because most had Ph.D.s and all had master degrees – and I wanted a career structure, so that there was an entry level (apprentice), a career level (the majority) and at least one senior level position, so that there was a chance of promotion and some opportunity for training and mentoring less experienced staff. I did not succeed in shifting the HR system which was, as so often, rigid and unyielding to changing conditions. The instructional designers remained categorised as general administrative staff, even though they were critical to the institution’s long term teaching and learning strategy (and are now being lumped in with all the other administrative costs that faculty are complaining about).

Perhaps of even greater concern is that it is extremely difficult for an instructional designer to end up as a senior manager making decisions about long-term strategies for the use of learning technologies in an institution. These positions – associate vice-presidents or deans responsible for teaching and learning – almost always go to mainline academics who may have no knowledge or experience in the use of learning technologies. The likelihood therefore of someone who is a specialist in digital learning technologies ending up as a university or college president is remote, although there are one or two exceptions.

What to do, then?

For the next five to ten years, there should be plenty of jobs for highly skilled instructional designers, but sooner rather than later institutions will be forced to ensure that their instructors are trained and qualified to teach effectively with technology. It will be a core part of their work, and as a result the demand for specialist learning technology support will decrease. The main role then will be providing some of the initial training for post-secondary instructors.

People come to learning technologies through many routes. Some are teachers or instructors who have become interested in the the use of technology for teaching. Others are web designers or print editors who have drifted into education. Some are computer scientists who started as software developers. In the future though, most teachers and instructors will need to be experts in subject areas, pedagogy, and learning technologies. These will all be integral parts of their jobs. We need to train post-graduates from the start in these areas, and to provide a two or three year probation period where they are monitored and supervised by more experienced teachers and instructors.

When I was finishing my undergraduate degree, one of my professors asked me what I wanted to do after I graduated. ‘I want to do research in education’, I said, expecting him to be pleased that I was going to do a post-graduate degree. ‘You’d better get some experience then in teaching first’, he said. ‘Take a post-graduate certificate in education, and get three years teaching experience before even beginning to think of research.’ It was excellent advice. I would give the same advice to young students thinking of becoming learning technology specialists.

Get subject expertise and learn about pedagogy and learning technologies, then teach for a few years, then decide whether or not you want to specialise. For those already started on a learning technology or instructional design career, strengthen your subject matter expertise so you can move (back) into teaching if necessary, because that may well be the future.

Above all, stay flexible and continue to learn, adding new skills and knowledge as the field develops. Develop excellent inter-personal and communication skills; these will be as important in the future as subject expertise and specialist knowledge.

Over to you

Predicting the future is always hazardous. I could be totally wrong. So I would really like to hear from others as to what they think the future is for instructional designers, learning technology and online learning specialists. What advice would you give to someone starting out in these areas? Or to someone more experienced looking to their next steps in their career?


Book review: A History of the Open University

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

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

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

Why you should read this book

From the book cover:

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

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

What the book covers

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

Part I: Creating a university of the air

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

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

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

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

Part II: The first two decades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part III: The OU since the 1990s

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

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

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

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

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

Part IV: Half a century of learning

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

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

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

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

Personal reflections on the book

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

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

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

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

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

Non-disclosure, plausible deniability and lack of transparency in leadership: UBC and the Duffy trial

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John Moltalbano, Chair of the Board, and Arvind Gupta, the President , in happier days at UBC

John Montalbano, Chair of the Board, and Arvind Gupta, the President , in happier days at UBC

The need to know

Even if you have been holidaying in outer Mongolia, you are probably aware (if you are Canadian) of the trial of Senator Duffy and the sudden resignation of the President of the University of British Columbia. These two seemingly unrelated events however have common themes which I wish to explore.

First, let me be clear. I have no inside information on either event. I don’t know whether or not the Prime Minister knew about the $90,000 payment to Senator Duffy by his chief of staff, nor the ‘real’ reason for President Arvind Gupta’s resignation from his position as President of UBC, after only 13 months into a five year term. But that is exactly my point. Other than those on the ‘inside’, no-one knows. And we should.

Plausible deniability

We don’t know whether Stephen Harper was a party to the deception being perpetrated by the Prime Minister’s Office about getting the Senator to appear to repay his expenses, because the whole premise of the PMO’s office is to enable ‘plausible’ deniability by the Prime Minister if anything should go wrong with the various scheming carried out by his office to protect the ‘brand’ of the Conservative Party. Damage control is the prime mandate of this office. The less the public knows of what it does and what the Prime Minster knows, the better – for the Conservative Party.


The Board of Governors at UBC also has used a common tool to manage damage control, a non-disclosure agreement which prevents anyone involved in the decision-making that lead to the resignation of the President from speaking about it. To give some idea of the legal power of a non-disclosure agreement, not one of the more than 20 members of the Board, including student, staff and faculty representatives, has given any hint of a comment about this very unusual decision. Clearly, from the Board’s perspective also, the less the public knows about it, the better.

So here we have two clear instances of leaders hiding behind damage-control tools to avoid explaining their decisions and in essence denying their responsibility for such decisions. And it looks like they will both get away with not accepting responsibility or avoiding explanations if they can sit tight and keep quiet until the public gets tired, or gets distracted by other events.

The consequences

I am angry about this, not because I feel I have a right to know what the Prime Minister or UBC’s Board of Governors does or why they did it, but because without the acceptance of responsibility for their decisions, our ‘governors’ have carte blanche to do what they like without restraint. All power corrupts and total power corrupts absolutely.

The UBC case

With specific respect to the UBC context, it seems beyond plausible that the President voluntarily stepped down after only 13 months, and so soon after setting out a bold and personal vision for the university. The reason given in the only public statement by UBC is as follows:

This leave will enable him to focus on his research and scholarly work that will be of mutual benefit to Dr. Gupta and UBC.

If you believe that then you believe the Toronto Maple Leafs will win the Stanley Cup next season. There aren’t many plausible reasons why he would resign:

  • overwhelming personal circumstances, such as a terminal sickness in the family
  • malfeasance of some kind
  • a sharp difference of views with at least the more powerful members of the board about the President’s policies or management decisions.

Let’s look at each of these reasons. It is hard to see why a non-disclosure agreement would be necessary for overwhelming personal circumstances. Most people would understand and feel great sympathy for the President in such circumstances, and the Board would really have no reason to feel responsible for this.

There has been no suggestion of malfeisance – wrongdoing by the President. However, in the unlikely and hypothetical case that it was malfeisance, then the Board might want to cover it up to protect the university’s reputation, but this would be totally the wrong decision. This would be a perversion of justice. I personally do not think this could possibly have been the reason. No Board would be that stupid.

So we are left with the most plausible reason – a disagreement between the Board and the President about policy and/or management. Now maybe the public and students (who after all pay the taxes and tuition fees that keep the university running) may not be in a good position to judge who is right on such issues, but certainly the faculty need to know whether or not there was a basic disagreement between Board and President, because faculty are tasked with moving the university in the direction set by the Board and President.

To give just one instance, two or so years ago, under the previous President, the university launched a visionary and ambitious flexible learning strategy that would transform teaching and learning at UBC. Do faculty continue to move in this direction, was it supported by the new President, or was it supported by the Board but not the President? The reason for the disagreement of course may have been over something completely different, but we don’t know and in such circumstances the university is on hold with regard to all its previous initiatives until a new (permanent) President and administration is in place.

What should we do?

What can the public do about these decisions? In the case of the PMO’s office, I will vote for any of the opposition parties that comes forward with a practical plan that will make the Prime Minister and his/her office more accountable for the consequences of their decisions, and will put in place policies and procedures that will make government more transparent.

UBC is more difficult. I no longer work there, although I have a complex love/hate relationship with the institution. It is easy to be an arm-chair quarter-back over someone else’s decisions. Personally, though, I think there were problems with the new President, such as his firing the VP Administration within days of taking office (see here). If so, the Board should be commended for making the right decision in difficult circumstances (after all, they are the ones who hired him in the first place). However, the Board needs to come clean and give its reasons and not hide behind a non-disclosure agreement.

Lastly, I think politicians should look carefully at the use of non-disclosure agreements. They are too often used as a tool for covering up the paying off of incompetent leaders or for covering arbitrary firings when there are personal issues between a board chair and the CEO or President. Non-disclosure agreements too often encourage both bad governance decisions and above all a lack of transparency over how tax dollars are being used. But it will be a brave and clever government that finds a way to get rid of non-disclosure agreements while still protecting the charter rights of those involved.

In the meantime, both the Duffy and UBC cases point to a lack of transparency in decision-making at the highest levels in Canada. We should do better.

Book review: Teaching and Learning in Digital Worlds

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Workspace in the EVEA3D platform

Workspace in the EVEA3D platform

Gisbert, T. and Bullen, M. (2015) Teaching and Learning in Digital Worlds: Strategies and Issues in Higher Education Tarragona Spain: Publicacions Universitat Rovira i Virgili (pdf version available online for 2.84 Euros).

What the book is about

From the Introduction

[The book] examines the teaching and learning process in 3D virtual learning environments from both the theoretical and practical points of view. It is divided into four sections:

  • the first section discusses education in the 21st century from the perspective of learners in a digital society and examines the basic competences students need to respond to the personal and professional challenges they are likely to face. It also explores the issue of quality…..
  • the second section focuses on the educational and teaching strategies higher education professionals must take into account when developing educational processes in technology environments…in such environments simulation will be our best teaching strategy and evaluation our greatest challenge.
  • the third section explores the use of 3D virtual environments in education in general and in higher education in particular….
  • The fourth section examines the range of experiences we consider to be good practice when applying 3D technological environments to the teaching of competences at secondary and tertiary levels of education both nationally and internationally.

However, this doesn’t quite capture for me what the book is really about, so I will discuss a little more closely below some of the themes addressed by individual chapters.

As a point of clarification, I will use the term ‘immersive environments’ as a shorthand to describe simulations, games and virtual reality, a point I will come back to in my comments at the end of this post.

Who wrote it

The book is edited by Mercè Gisbert of the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Catalonia, Spain, and Canadian Mark Bullen, formerly of the University of British Columbia and the Commonwealth of Learning. However, the majority of chapters are based on a study (Simul@) funded by the Spanish Ministry of Education and coordinated by Universitat Rovira i Virgili, but involving universities in Spain, Germany, and Portugal, thus providing a valuable insight into the thinking about immersive environments for education in Europe.

Full disclosure: I wrote a short prologue for the book.

Themes covered in the book

Rather than a chapter-by-chapter summary, I have selected certain themes that re-occur through the book.

1. Digital learners

There is a lot of discussion in the book about the nature of digital learners and their ‘readiness’ for learning through digital technologies. In particular, Bullen and Morgan summarise the conflicting views and the research around digital natives and digital immigrants, and provide a more ‘nuanced’ profile of categories of digital learners.  Martinez and Espinal in their chapter provide a detailed description of digital competence and how to assess it. Throughout the book there is emphasis on the need to ensure that learners have the necessary ‘digital competences’ to benefit fully from the use of immersive technologies for learning purposes (although the same applies to teachers, of course). For instance, de Oliveira et al., in their chapter, identify various components of digital competences.

2. Competences

One of the strengths of the book is that several authors make the point that the main educational value of immersive learning environments is for the development of ‘general competences’ such as learning to learn, teamwork, communication, problem solving and decision-making. Astigarraga provides a very good overview of the definition, identification and evaluation of competences, and Isus et al. develop this further with a chapter on evaluating the competences of teamwork and self-management. Larraz and Esteve devote their whole chapter to evaluating digital competence in immersive environments. These chapters will be valuable for anyone interested in competency-based learning, whether or not using immersive learning environments.

3. Key educational principles and affordances of immersive technologies

Another strength of the book is that several authors related the features of immersive environments to possible educational affordances, and the educational principles needed to exploit such affordances. Camacho and Esteve-Gonzáles have a list of 14 educational reasons for using immersive environments for learning and Cervera and Cela-Ranilla have collated from the general research literature about 15 key pedagogical principles ‘to be observed during learning processes’ when using immersive technologies for learning purposes.

4. Planning and implementing virtual learning environments

Towards the end of the book there are several chapters focusing on more practical issues. Marqués et al. describe the planning and implementation of a virtual world built in Sloodle, which combines OpenSim with Moodle, for educating both physical education and business management students. Estevez-González et al. take this further with a chapter on the tools used in Sloodle and the necessary steps needed to integrate OpenSim and Moodle. Lastly, Cela-Ranilla and Estevez-Gonzàlez provide an educational rationale for the design of the project. Garcia and Martin set out a design methodology for an immersive learning environment.

5. Experiences and good practices

The book ends with five chapters that describe actual applications of immersive learning environments, including PolyU developed at Hong Kong Polytechnic University (hotel and tourism management), a review of applications in economics and business courses, the use of an educational platform Virt-UAM developed at Universidad Autònoma de Madrid, and applications in law and psychology, and lastly a review of applications in secondary/high school education.


First, this is a very welcome and timely publication for several reasons:

  • it sets out very clearly the pedagogical rationale for the use of immersive learning environments;
  • it links immersive technologies very strongly to the development of competences;
  • it provides practical advice on the planning and implementation of immersive learning environments;
  • it provides a welcome European perspective on the topic.

From a personal perspective, it complements very nicely my own open, online textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, where, because of space and time issues, I was unable to give this topic the treatment it deserves. Although not an open textbook, it is very accessible, available online for less than three euros ($3-4).

Given the book is mostly written by people for whom English is a second language, the chapters are clearly and well written, mostly free of the European English associated with European Commission projects.

Nevertheless, the European Commission has adopted the term competence rather than competency, which really irritates me, and this term is used throughout the book, when what the authors are really talking about are skills. Competent is an adjective meaning a minimal capacity to do something; incompetent is more frequently used in English English, and it is used to describe inadequacy. What we are really talking about here are skills, not competence. Skills have no limit, while competence tends to be categorical: you either have it or you don’t, which is why competency-based learning often requires 100% pass-rates. But skills such as problem-solving can get better and better, and that’s what we should be striving for in higher education, not a minimal pass requirement.

The editors have done a good job in ensuring that there is a coherence and progression between the different chapters, always a challenge in a multiple-authored book. However, I would have liked a summary chapter from the editors that pulled all the threads together, and also some more information about the authors.

The books strength and its weakness is the academic nature of the book, with more focus on theory, competences and affordances, and less on the actual technology design issues, although to be fair these start to appear at the back of the book. I would have liked to have seen more integration in the writing throughout the book between theory and practice.

The main omission is any discussion of costs in planning and developing immersive learning environments, which are time demanding of both learners and teachers. There are clear economies of scale that need to be employed to justify the high cost of initial design. If a virtual world and allied teaching strategies can be shared across several courses or even disciplines, the cost becomes more acceptable. There is also a high cost for students in terms of the time needed to master the technology and its educational applications if they only get one course in a virtual world. So it is a pity that there was so little discussion of costs and time in the book, and about the transfer of innovation into mainstream practice, which are significant challenges for the wider adoption of immersive technologies in education.

Nevertheless, this is a book I would highly recommend to all concerned about the implications of technology for learning design. Virtual learning environments hold great promise. We need more concerted efforts in higher education to use immersive learning environments, and this book is an essential guide.

Is Blackboard Inc. really worth $3 billion?

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WebCT to BB 2

Baker, L., Roumeliotis, G. and Stone, M. (2105) Education company Blackboard seeks $3 billion sale – sources Reuters, July 28

Fleming, B. (2015) The Real Vision Behind the New Blackboard, Eduventures, July 31

Phil Hill (2015) Blackboard Potential Sale: Market timing, financials, and some thoughts on potential buyers, August 4

I have a special interest in Blackboard. In 1995, I gave a grant of $25,000 from the university’s fund for distance education to a young, untenured associate professor named Murray Goldberg in the Department of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia, to cover the costs of two of his research assistants who were finalising the development of WebCT, the first real LMS.  In 1999, WebCT was sold to ULT, who then in 2006 sold the product on to the current owners of Blackboard, Providence Equity Partners LLC, who further developed the product to its current state. So in a sense I was a midwife to Murray’s Blackboard baby. From a small acorn grows an oak.

So I was particularly interested when Reuters reported that:

Blackboard Inc… is exploring a sale that it hopes could value it at as much as $3 billion, including debt.

Now $3 billion is a lot of money for a company that specialises in software mainly for the higher education market. (It’s a lot of money for a company specialising in anything, for that matter). So what makes Blackboard think it is worth this amount to a buyer?

Blackboard Ultra

It’s probably no coincidence that Reuters reported this at the same time that Blackboard announced its new learning platform called Ultra. (Yes, groans from all the faculty who have just moved up to the latest version of Blackboard Learn). However, although I have not yet seen Ultra in operation, it is reported to be much more than just an LMS.  According to Brian Fleming, a senior analyst at Eduventures:

Ultra consists of an integration of three core products (Learn, Collaborate, and Mobile) into one coherent, responsive, and immersive platform. It includes a radically improved user experience (UX) and a number of improved workflows, including drag-and-drop capabilities, embedded grading tools, mobile communication features, and expanded analytics.

In other words, it’s more of a complete learning platform than an LMS. Fleming believes this makes Blackboard Ultra a:

product that is on par, if not prepared to outmatch, its most agile competitors (ahem, Canvas).

More importantly, according to Fleming,

Bb now has the foundation it needs to develop a comprehensive learning analytics platform unlike anything the education world has seen.

But before you rush out to buy Blackboard stocks, you might like to listen to this old midwife (especially as the company is private at the moment and isn’t publicly listed, so it has no stock to buy.)

Risks and opportunities

I’m not a financial analyst (for a good discussion of the financial aspects, see Phil Hill’s blog post), but I do know a bit about learning technologies, and here are some of the risks or challenges I see for Blackboard in the future that might influence whether or not you rush out to buy the stock of any company that buys Blackboard. (I doubt whether anyone actually contemplating buying Blackboard will read my little blog, but the advice is free.)

1. A maturing market 

There are signs that the rapid growth in online learning is beginning to slow down, if not flatten out. The Babson Surveys had been recording growth of between 10-20% per annum in online enrolments in the USA over the 10 years up to 2012. However, the U.S. Federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) survey showed an overall decrease in DE enrolments of 4% from 2012 to 2013. The biggest area was the for-profits, which declined by 17%. Even the Babson Survey recorded a slower growth rate in online enrolments in 2013.

There are technical reasons that make measuring the growth in online learning very difficult, and one year is not enough to determine a trend. However, the rate of students taking fully online courses in the USA (and Canada) is likely to slow in the future for two reasons:

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

However, offsetting this is the much bigger move to blended and hybrid learning, resulting in the use of online learning in campus-based classes. This is a much bigger overall market than the fully online student market, and has hardly been touched yet outside North America (Blackboard is actually used more for on-campus than fully online courses in the USA). As more and more institutions move to blended learning, so will the demand for software to support such course designs. So while the market is changing, the demand for some kind of platform to manage the online, and increasingly the on-campus components, is likely to continue well into the future. The market then may be maturing but there is still plenty of room for growth, especially internationally. At the same time, the product has to meet the demands of new blended course designs and not be merely an online platform somewhat adapted to use on campus. It remains to be seen whether Ultra can really respond to that requirement.

2. Increasing competition from other integrated platform providers

This is probably Blackboard’s most obvious (but not necessarily most serious) challenge. It is operating in a market with more than 50 direct competitors, and the list grows almost daily. Some of the later entrants, such as Instructure and Desire2Learn, have been taking a big bite out of Blackboard’s market in recent years. Learning platforms still require a relatively low-entry level of technology/software development and it is not difficult to design alternatives on the general theme. While Ultra certainly will help Blackboard to push back against its competitors, they too will not stand still in new software developments and approaches. So while the overall market may be maturing, the consolidation into two or three dominant players seems to be moving even further away.

3. Alternatives to course platforms

The design of Ultra in bringing together a range of disparate but proprietary products into one integrated, consolidated product or platform is being countered by moves to lighter, stand-alone, often ‘open’ technologies that the end-users (both teacher and learners) integrate on an ‘as needs’ basis. This can be seen particularly in the use of social media, such as blogs, wikis, You Tube videos, and mobile apps.

On the other hand, I have also argued elsewhere that the need for some kind of platform that enables learning materials to be stored and organised, limits access to registered students and appropriate teaching staff, provides secure assessment and learning analytics, and offers a central, single location for student work, is not likely to go away well into the future.

The question though is whether the kind of proprietary system such as Ultra is the best way to provide such a platform. Open source solutions such as Canvas and WordPress provide more flexibility and allow more easily for future technology developments and new teaching approaches to be incorporated.

Watch this space

These arguments of course may be actually just academic. No-one has yet made an offer and although suggestions have been made that Oracle, Microsoft or some other company with data-based products might be interested, Blackboard sits in a fairly small, niche market.

In the meantime it will be interesting to see how many institutions, having made the investment in Blackboard Learn or some other LMS, are willing to go through the major upheaval needed to move to a new platform such as Ultra. If I had $3 billion to spend, I’d wait and see – but then that’s why I don’t have $3 billion in the first place.