May 22, 2015

EDUCAUSE looks beyond the (current) LMS environment: is it a future we want?

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The future of educational technology? Image" © biotech01, DeviantArt

The future of educational technology?
Image: © biotech01, DeviantArt

Brown, M, Dehoney, J., Millichap, N. (2015) The Next Generation Digital Learning Environment: A Report on Research EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative

What is it about?

EDUCAUSE has published a very interesting white paper that:

explores the gaps between current learning management tools and a digital learning environment that could meet the changing needs of higher education.

What problem does the paper address?

The LMS has been highly successful in enabling the administration of learning but less so in enabling learning itself. Initial LMS designs have been both course- and instructor-centric, which is consonant with the way higher education viewed teaching and learning through the 1990s.

Higher education is moving away from its traditional emphasis on the instructor, however, replacing it with a focus on learning and the learner. Higher education is also moving away from a standard form factor for the course, experimenting with a variety of course models.

What solution does the paper propose?

A next generation digital learning environment (NGDLE):

although the NGDLE might include a traditional LMS as a component, it will not itself be a single application like the current LMS or other enterprise applications. Rather, the NGDLE will be an ecosystem of sorts….

It must address five domains of core functionality:

  • Interoperability and Integration
  • Personalization
  • Analytics, Advising, and Learning Assessment
  • Collaboration
  • Accessibility and Universal Design

All five are core functional dimensions of the NGDLE, meaning that progress toward the full realization of the NGDLE is possible only if the whole set is addressed…..

We will need to take what might be called a “Lego approach.” Indeed, if the mash-up is the way that individuals and institutions will assemble their own NGDLE, then one way to enable that model is to populate the landscape with a set of tools and resources that are NGDLE conformant. This would result in a toolbox of applications, content, and platforms that could be assembled in custom ways. The key is defining what is meant by “NGDLE conformance.” Legos work because of a design specification that ensures the pieces will interlock, while enabling a wide variety of component parts. For the NGDLE to succeed as we describe here, a similar set of specifications and services will need to be defined that constitute the conformance needed to make the Lego approach workable….

We are suggesting an NGDLE-conformant standard or specification, which would be based on adherence to a coordinated set of component standards. Once such a standard is in place, future investments and development efforts could be designed around the NGDLE specifications.

The culture of higher education teaching and learning must evolve to encourage and even demand the realization of the NGDLE. We need to adopt “NGDLE thinking,” whereby the functional domain set described above feels to us like a natural fit for any learning environment.

Comments

First, this is one of the most interesting papers on the future of digital learning that I have read for some time. I have had to shorten it considerably but I highly recommend reading the whole paper carefully. It contains many interesting ideas and a useful set of resources that could be directly incorporated into current teaching and learning. This is not surprising as it is  the result of ‘consultations with more than 70 community thought leaders’.

Now who am I to argue with 70 community thought leaders? Certainly I wouldn’t disagree with the shortcomings of current learning management systems, and I find Lego absolutely awesome, along with collaboration and common technical standards. I myself have previously reported that LMSs are a necessary evil, but need to evolve.

But on the second reading of the paper I started getting a really uncomfortable feeling. I’ll try and unpack that discomfort.

1. Be careful what you wish for

First, this seems to be much too much of a top-down approach to developing technology-based learning environments for my taste. Standards are all very well, but who will set these standards? Just look at the ways standards are set in technology: international committees taking many years, with often powerful lobby groups and ‘rogue’ corporations trying to impose new or different standards.

Is that what we want in education? Or will EDUCAUSE go it alone, with the rest of the world outside the USA scrambling to keep up, or worse, trying to develop alternative standards or systems? (Just watch the European Commission on this one.) Attempts to standardize learning objects through meta-data have not had much success in education, for many good reasons, but EDUCAUSE is planning something much more ambitious than this.

2. Is LEGO the right metaphor for a learning environment?

A next generation digital learning environment where all the bits fit nicely together seems far too restrictive for the kinds of learning environments we need in the future. What about teaching activities and types of learning that don’t fit so nicely?

We need actually to move away from the standardization of learning environments. We have inherited a largely industrial and highly standardized system of education from the 19th century designed around bricks and mortar, and just as we are able to start breaking way from rigid standardization EDUCAUSE wants to provide a digital educational environment based on standards.

I have much more faith in the ability of learners, and less so but still a faith in teachers and instructors, to be able to combine a wide range of technologies in the ways that they decide makes most sense for teaching and learning than a bunch of computer specialists setting technical standards (even in consultation with educators).

3. Model educational technology on human behaviour, not on computing

I am becoming increasingly disturbed by the tendency of software engineers to force humans to fit technology systems rather than the other way round (try flying with Easyjet or Ryanair for instance). There may be economic reasons to do this in business enterprises, but we need in education, at least, for the technology to empower learners and teachers, rather than restrict their behaviour to fit complex technology systems. The great thing about social media, and the many software applications that result from it, is its flexibility and its ability to be incorporated and adapted to a variety of needs, despite or maybe even because of its lack of common standards.

When I look at EDUCAUSE’s specifications for its ‘NGDLE-conformant standards’, each on its own makes sense, but when combined they become a monster of parts. Do I want teaching decisions influenced by student key strokes or time spent on a particular learning object, for instance? Behind each of these activities will be a growing complexity of algorithms and decision-trees that will take teachers and instructors further way from knowing their individual students and making intuitive and inductive decisions about them. Although humans make many mistakes, they are also able to do things that computers can’t. We need technology to support that kind of behaviour, not try to replace it.

4. Read the paper and make up your own mind

I think that despite my concerns this paper is really important. It offers one possible future for educational technology that we need to consider very carefully. I may be over-reacting in my response. You must draw your own conclusions from the paper – as I know you will. But do read it if you care about the future of education.

Defining skills for a digital age

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Video games designer 2

ACT (2105) Unpacking “Career Readiness” Iowa City IA: Act Inc.

ACT Inc, the organisation that designs and administers the most widely used high school standardised tests in the USA, has just published a short but interesting document. In it, they state:

In the report Broadening the Definition of College and Career Readiness: A Holistic Approach (Mattern et al. 2014), ACT has begun to describe the skills needed for postsecondary success through a new model of learning readiness that encompasses at least four overlapping but distinct domains:

  • Core Academic Skills in English language arts, mathematics, and science
  • Cross-Cutting Capabilities such as critical thinking, collaboration, problem solving, and information and technology skills
  • Behavioral Skills related to success in education and the workforce, such as being dependable, working effectively with others, adapting, and managing stress
  • Navigation Skills, or skills needed to successfully negotiate educational and career pathways, such as self-knowledge of abilities, likes and dislikes, and values; knowledge about majors, occupations, and future career opportunities; and the variety of skills related to educational and career exploration, planning, and decision making needed for long-term success in the workplace

The documents also states:

Readiness assessments that focus solely on academic proficiency risk ignoring what education, business, and industry leaders have long recognized: behavioral and career skills and crosscutting capabilities are no less essential to success in the 21st-century college classroom and the workplace. The “life skills” framework suggested by this new model supports this holistic picture of readiness.

Comment

It is good that ACT is raising the issue of the skills needed by learners and graduates in today’s society. Identifying the most important skills is an essential first step to ensuring that they get taught.

However, the paper raises more questions than it answers, such as:

  • is this the ‘right’ list of skills? For instance, shouldn’t knowledge management and digital literacy (which is not the same as IT skills) be in there somewhere? And who should decide what skills are important?
  • is it the job of colleges and universities to teach these broader skills? I believe it is, but that raises further questions, such as:
    • do instructors currently have the knowledge, time and inclination to develop these new skills?
    • do these new skills replace or are they an addition to what schools and colleges are already teaching? What are the trade-offs that will be necessary if more focus is given to these skills?
  • what teaching methods are most likely to enable students to develop these skills?
  • what is the best way to measure or assess such skills?

The last question is particularly important to ask, because I suspect ACT is looking to build standardised, computer assessments for such skills, but this may not be the most appropriate form of assessment.

My online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, attempts to address at least some of these issues, but I don’t pretend that I have all the answers. It is good though that ACT is raising the issue of identifying and assessing these ‘soft’ skills, even if there may be a commercial motive behind their research.

Reference

Mattern, Krista, et al. (2014) Broadening the Definition of College and Career Readiness: A Holistic Approach. Iowa City, IA: ACT Research Report Series 2014-5

Yale University to offer an online master of medical science

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Yale University 2

Korn, M. (2015) Yale Will Offer Web-Based Master of Medical Science Degree Wall Street Journal, March 10

This for me is much more significant than the announcement of the first xMOOCs. It is a sign that even the elite Ivy League universities are recognising the validity of online learning for credit, even in the most demanding of subject areas, after ignoring or even denigrating online learning for many years.

However, before you all rush to sign up, note the sticker price: US$83,162 – the same cost as for the on-campus program, which has been limited to 40 students a year. One reason probably for such a high price for an online program is that Yale is contracting 2U Inc to help with the design and delivery of the program.

Another high cost factor is that the program requires hands-on clinical stints at field sites near students and at least three meetings on Yale’s New Haven, Conn., campus for activities such as cadaver dissection. Yale is aiming eventually for about 360 students across both the on-campus and online programs.

Yale’s move reinforces my view that there is still room for major expansion by top research universities into the online professional masters’ market. However, it will be important to price these at a level that makes them attractive to lifelong learners.

So good on Yale for leading the way for other Ivy League institutions. Now let’s hope someone else can do this at a more reasonable tuition fee (which in my view would be in the range of $15,000-$25,000 for the equivalent of a one year master’s program).

Rethinking learning spaces in a digital age: an example from Singapore

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Nanyang Technlogical University's new Learning Hub

Nanyang Technological University’s new Learning Hub

Hohenadel, K. (2015) Singapore’s New “Learning Hub” Rethinks University Classroom Design in the Internet Age SLATE, March 12

I have written in earlier posts about the need to rethink learning spaces as more and more institutions move to blended and hybrid learning. This design by Britain’s Thomas Heatherwick (who designed the Googleplex in Silicon Valley) incorporates ’56 “tutorial rooms” [that] don’t have corners or obvious fronts or backs and provide students with open spaces and terraces for collaboration and breaks.

In their description of the project, Heatherwick Studios state:

The purpose of a university is to foster togetherness and sociability, so that students can meet their fellow entrepreneurs, scientists and colleagues in a space that encourages collaboration.

Another inspiration for the hub was a wish to break down the traditional square forward-facing classrooms with a clear front and hierarchy, and move to a corner-less space, where teachers and students mix on a more equal basis.

In this model the students work together around shared tables, with teacher as facilitator and partner in the voyage of learning, rather than ‘master’ executing a top-down model of pedagogy.

The goal was to create a space that promotes accessibility, serendipity, and connectivity on a human scale.

It’s good to see an architect trying to create a building that supports the ‘magic of the campus’ in a digital age. I would have liked a little more detail though about the technology within the spaces, such as screens for sharing work.

It will be interesting to see if the design actually leads to changes in teaching methods, or whether faculty try to impose the hierarchical model of lecturing on these spaces.

Lastly, students seem to be very good at reducing architectural postulations to their bare essentials; students have already labelled the Learning Hub ‘dim sum’, because of its similarity to stacked dim sum steamer baskets.

Thanks to Clayton Wright for directing me to this.

dim sum steamer baskets 2

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics: WCET’s analysis of distance education enrolments in the USA

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Out-of-state students 2

Russell Poulin and Terri Straut have done an invaluable analysis of recent data on distance education enrolments in the USA in the following three blog posts:

Straut, T. and Poulin, R. (2015) IPEDS Fall 2013: Higher Ed Sectors Vary Greatly in Distance Ed Enrollments Boulder CO: Western Co-operative for Educational Technologies

Straut, T. and Poulin, R. (2015) IPEDS Fall 2013: Distance Education Data Reveals More Than Overall Flat Growth Boulder CO: Western Co-operative for Educational Technologies

Straut, T. and Poulin, R. (2015) IPEDS Fall 2013: Less than Half of Fully Distant Students Come from Other States Boulder CO: Western Co-operative for Educational Technologies

These reports should be read in conjunction with these equally valuable posts:

Hill, P. and Poulin, R. (2014) Investigation of IPEDS Distance Education Data: System Not Ready for Modern Trends Boulder CO: Western Co-operative for Educational Technologies/e-Literate

Allen, I.E. and Seaman, J. (2013) Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States  Wellesley MA: Babson College/Quahog Research Group

I am pulling this together in this one post for convenience, but I strongly recommend that you read carefully the original reports.

There are serious methodological issues in the USA data

Over the last ten years or so, the most consistent analyses of enrolments in online learning have been the annual Babson College surveys conducted by Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, with support from the Sloan Foundation. However, this was a voluntary survey, based on a carefully drawn sample of chief academic officers across the USA. The Babson Surveys showed consistent growth of online course enrolments in the order of 10-20 per cent per annum over a the last 10 years, compared with around 2-3 per cent growth in on-campus enrolments, with in 2013 approximately one third of all higher education students in the USA taking at least one fully online course.

However, since the Babson surveys were voluntary, sample-based and dependent on the good will of participating institutions, there was always a concern about the reliability of the data, and especially that the returns might be somewhat biased towards enrolments from institutions actively engaged in online learning, thus suggesting more online enrolments than in reality. Despite these possible limitations the Babson Surveys were invaluable because they provided a comparable set of national data across several years. So while the actual numbers may be a little shaky, the trends were consistent.

Then in 2012 the U.S. Federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) survey, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the U.S. Federal Department of Education, for the first time included distance education in its compulsory annual survey of enrolments in higher education. (One might ask why it took until 2012 to ask for data on distance education, but hey, it’s a start.) Since this is a census rather than a survey, and since it is obligatory, one would expect that the IPEDS data would be more reliable than the Babson surveys.

However, it turns out that there are also major problems with the IPEDS survey. Phil Hill (of the blog e-Literate) and Russell Poulin have indicated the following limitations with IPEDS:

  • problems of definition: Babson focused only on students enrolled in fully online courses; IPEDS asks for enrolments in distance education. Although many institutions have moved their print-based courses online, there are still many print-based distance education courses still out there. How many? We don’t know. Also the IPEDS definition rules out reporting on blended or hybrid courses, and is not precise enough to ensure that different institutions don’t interpret who to include and who to exclude on a consistent basis
  • under-reporting: IPEDS collected data on the assumption that all students enrolled through continuing education departments were taking non-credit distance education courses, and therefore these enrolments were to be excluded. However, in many institutions, continuing education departments have continued to administer for-credit online courses, which institutions have seen as just another form of distance education. (In other institutions, distance education departments have been integrated with central learning technology units, and are thus included in enrolment counts.)
  • the IPEDS survey does not work for innovative programs such as those with continuous enrolments, competency-based learning, or hybrid courses.

Hill and Poulin come to the following conclusions about the 2012 survey:

  • we don’t know the numbers – there are too many flaws in the the data collection methods
  • thus the 2012 numbers are not a credible baseline for future comparisons
  • there are hundreds of thousands of students who have never been reported on any IPEDS survey that has ever been conducted.

It is against this background that we should now examine the recent analyses by Straut and Poulin on the IPEDS data for  2013. However, note their caveat:

Given the errors that we found in colleges reporting to IPEDS, the Fall 2012 distance education reported enrollments create a very unstable base for comparisons.

Main results for 2013

1. Most DE enrolments are in public universities

For those outside the USA, there are quite different types of HE institution, dependent on whether they are publicly funded or privately funded, and whether they operate for profit or not for profit. Distance education is often associated in the USA with diploma mills, or offered by for-profit private institutions, such as the University of Phoenix or Kaplan. As it turns out, this is a fundamental mis-conception. Nearly three-quarters of all DE enrolments are in publicly funded universities. Less than 10% of all DE enrolments are in for-profit private institutions.

2. Students studying exclusively at a distance

Students studying exclusively at a distance constitute about 13% of all enrolments. However, non-profits rely much more on distance students, who make up half their enrolments. Less than 10% of students in public universities are studying exclusively at a distance. The significance of this is that for most students in public universities, DE is a relatively small part of their studies, an option that they exercise occasionally and as needed, and is not seen as a replacement for campus-based studies. On the other hand, there is a substantial if small minority for whom DE is the only option, and for many of these, the for-profits are their the only option if their local public universities do not offer such programs in the discipline they want.

3. DE enrolments were down slightly in 2013

IPEDS shows an overall decrease in DE enrolments of 4% from 2012 to 2013. The biggest area was the for-profits, which declined by 17%. The drop in public universities for those taking fully online courses was a marginal 2%. However, this is a major difference from the trends identified by the Babson Surveys.

This is probably the most contentious of the conclusions, because the differences are relatively small and probably within the margin of error, given the unreliability of the data. The for-profit sector has been particularly badly hit by changes to federal financial aid for students.

However, I have been predicting that 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.

The counter trend is that public universities still have much more scope for increasing enrolments in fully online professional masters programs, as well as for certificates, diplomas and badges.

4. Students studying fully online are still more likely to opt for a local university

Just over half of all students enrolled exclusively in DE courses take their courses from within state. This figure jumps to between 75-90% for those enrolled in a public university. On the other hand, 70% of students enrolled in a DE course in a for-profit take their courses from out-of-state. This is not surprising, since although non-profits have to have their headquarters somewhere, they operate on a national basis.

The proportion of institutions reporting that they serve students who are outside the U.S. remains small, no more than 2% in any sector. This again may be a reporting anomaly, as 21% of institutions reported that they have students located outside the U.S. Probably of more concern is that many institutions did not report data on the location of their DE students. This may have something to do with the need for authorization for institutions to operate outside the home state, and this is a uniquely American can of worms that I don’t intend to open.

Not good, but it’s better than nothing

I have an uncomfortable feeling about the IPEDS data. It needs to be better, and it’s hard to draw any conclusions or make policy decisions on what we have seen so far.

However, it’s easy for someone outside the USA to criticise the IPEDS data, but at least it’s an attempt to measure what is an increasingly significant – and highly complex – area of higher education. We have nothing similar in Canada. At least the IPEDS data is likely to improve over time, as institutions press for clearer definitions, and are forced to collect better and more consistent data.

Also, I can’t praise too highly first of all Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman for their pioneering efforts to collect data in this area, and Phil Hill, Russell Poulin and Terri Straut for guiding us through the minefield of IPEDS data.

For a nice infographic on this topic from WCET, click on the image below:

WCET infographic 2