December 22, 2014

That was the year that was for online learning: thank you and goodbye, 2014

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Well, where on earth did 2014 go? It seems as if it’s only just started!

What I did in 2014

2014 though is a significant year for me, because I decided to stop taking paid contracts from April (in principle, at least). As a result, I haven’t been as engaged with the Canadian post-secondary system as previously (19 institutions in 2013), and since starting on my open textbook in May, I haven’t been keeping up and blogging about new developments in online learning as much as in previous years.

However, I have done quite lot to track down recent research publications for my book, and I did get to visit/do work at seven universities during 2014, five in Canada and two in Europe.

I was also a keynote or rapporteur at the following conferences:

  • The EDEN conference, Oxford
  • Canadian Association of University Boards of Governors, Ottawa

I also gave webinars for:

  • Alberta Upgrading
  • Universidad de Buenos Aires Faculty of Engineering

Lastly, I’ve just completed my part of the review of online course and OER proposals for the Council of Ontario Universities.

And did I mention I’m writing an open textbook?

So I’m not completely out of touch yet.

What you were interested in in 2014

Since data analytics are all the rage, let’s use WordPress statistics to see what got your attention in 2014.

Altogether, the site got just under 300,000 views, or just over 800 a day, in 2014. Here’s how these figures break down.  (I’ve not included stuff like home page visits, my biography, etc., and I’ve only included the top 20 other posts)


Recommended graduate programs in e-learning (2008) More stats 16,715
The world’s largest supplier of free online learning? (2012) More stats 12,606
2020 Vision: Outlook for online learning in 2014 and way beyond More stats 9,165
What Is Distance Education? (2008) More stats 8,862
Time to retire from online learning? More stats 6,463
Can you teach ‘real’ engineering at a distance? (2009) More stats 6,394
What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs (2012) More stats 4,170
Learning theories and online learning More stats 3,924
Why lectures are dead (or soon will be) More stats 3,787
Stephen Downes’ overview of e-learning: and a little history lesson (2012) More stats 3,194
E-learning quality assurance standards, organizations and research (2008) More stats 3,191
A short critique of the Khan Academy (2012) More stats 3,039
More stats
The role of communities of practice in a digital age More stats 2,545
Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 7: Design course structure and learning activities More stats 2,337
A student guide to studying online (2012) More stats 2,321
Does technology really enhance the quality of teaching and learning? (2009) More stats 2,066
Does technology change the nature of knowledge? (2009) More stats 2,062
Is Athabasca University moving away from tutoring? More stats 2,039
Nine steps to quality online learning: introduction (2012) More stats 2,013

What does this tell me?

Students need independent advice on online program quality

The first two posts, plus, ‘Can you teach real engineering online?’, and ‘A student guide to studying online’, reflect the fact that many learners/students use the site. (The world’s largest supplier of online learning is From the many comments they post to these sites, these readers are looking for some kind of quality assurance about potential online programs. It’s sad that they come to my site, because I can’t and don’t want to act as some kind of rating agency for online programs. However, the comments on these posts do eventually form some kind of crowdsourced quality assessment. There’s obviously need for a good app for collecting together student reviews of online learning programs, so long as the site is independent of commercial pressure.

The site is acting as a open resource site for online and distance education

Yes, I’m running an OER, and I never knew! About two-thirds of the most frequently accessed sites were posted more than a year ago, but they are still attracting a lot of traffic, suggesting that these are resources that have enough staying power to meet an ongoing need for information. (This could also be interpreted as not posting enough attractive posts in 2014.) I hope my interpretation is correct, because the main objective of the site is to be a useful resource for those designing online courses.

Is interest in MOOCs declining?

Even though there were a good number of posts on my site about MOOCs in 2014 (including a comparison between xMOOCs and cMOOCs, and an analysis of the strength and weaknesses of MOOCs), none of these made the top 20. My retirement post, which included a rant about the hype around MOOCs, obviously hit a nerve. However, my 2012 post on Coursera still attracts a lot of traffic, as does my 2012 post on the Khan Academy. It may also be too early to come to this conclusion. It takes time for a post to build solid numbers, and most of my MOOC posts came relatively late in 2014.

My open textbook is on track

Three of the top posts were for my book (‘Learning theories and online learning’, ‘Why lectures are dead’ and ‘The role of communities of practice’), despite all these being posted in the latter half of the year. In addition, three of the nine steps to quality learning (which will feature in the book) were also in the top 20.

What are my main takeaways from 2014?

These are drawn from both my contact with post-secondary education in 2014 and the blog analysis.

1. Blended/hybrid learning is the future for campus-based universities. However, this will mean redesigning teaching (and learning spaces) to make the most of the campus experience.

2. We are demanding too much of faculty. Not only must they be subject experts and top researchers, they must also now be experts in teaching methods and learning technologies. One of the most insightful comments I heard in 2014 came from Marti Cleveland-Innes, who pointed out the difficulties of achieving the ‘complete’ faculty member. This means we need to totally re-think the approach to faculty development, including:

  • putting more emphasis on pre-service training, so that teaching as well as research are part of the requirements for appointment, tenure and promotion
  • increasing the ‘teaching’ track for promotion for those that want to focus on teaching, rather than research
  • moving much more to team teaching, with clearly defined roles for senior research faculty, lecturers (tenured and adjunct), and teaching assistants, as well as instructional designers. This of course needs to combined with the redesign of teaching
  • getting rid of the current, voluntary in-service faculty development model. This may work for a very small number of faculty, but it cannot cope with the institution- and program-wide demands that new technology and new teaching methods require. Replace it with a systematic approach to in-service training linked to academic planning and institutional change

3. Expect a continued rough ride for open educational resources in 2015. The problem remains adoption and application, rather than creation. This is not a criticism of OERs, but of a system that rewards competition rather than collaboration. However, slow progress is being made (open textbooks in BC and institutional use of OERs created by their own faculty in Ontario).

4. Cost remains a major challenge for the post-secondary education system. It is time to look at how to reduce costs without jeopardizing quality, by the intelligent use of technology. This means making some key institutional changes such as reviewing faculty teaching loads (more courses, smaller classes), reallocation of resources to teaching from other areas, in particular operations (less campus, more online) and research (fewer research faculty and more teaching faculty). If we don’t do this we won’t get the teaching methods that will produce the knowledge and skills our graduates need in the 21st century.

So to all my readers, thank you for bothering when you are all so busy, and have a wonderful holiday season, free from log-ins! I will continue to blog but you can catch up in the new year.

Choosing design models for a digital age

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Oh, dear, it appears that I missed out in posting the conclusion to my Chapter 6, on Models for Designing Teaching and Learning for my book, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’, so here it is:

Choosing a model

This chapter covers a range of different design models or approaches to teaching. There are many more that could have been included. However, it is clear that there is a choice of possible models, depending on a number of factors, most of which are listed in Chapter 5, Building an Effective Learning Environment.

Your choice of model will then depend very much on the context in which you are teaching. However, I have suggested that a key criterion should be the suitability of the design model for developing the knowledge and skills that learners will need in a digital age. Other critical factors will be the demands of the subject domain, characteristics of the learners you will likely be teaching, the resources available, especially in terms of supporting learners, and probably most important of all, your own views and beliefs about what constitutes ‘good teaching.’

Furthermore, the models by and large are not mutually exclusive. They can probably be mixed and matched to a certain degree, but there are limitations in doing this. Moreover, a consistent approach will be less confusing not only to learners, but also to you as a teacher or instructor.

So: how would you go about choosing an appropriate design model? I set out below in Figure 6.20 one way of doing this. I have chosen five criteria as headings along the top of the table:

  • epistemological basis: in what epistemological view of knowledge is this model based? Does the model suggest a view of knowledge as content that must be learned, does the model suggest a rigid (‘correct’) way of designing learning (objectivist)? Or does the model suggest that learning is a dynamic process and knowledge needs to be discovered and is constantly changing (constructivist)? Does the model suggest that knowledge lies in the connections and interpretations of different nodes or people on networks and that connections matter more in terms of creating and communicating knowledge than the individual nodes or people on the network (connectivist)? Or is the model epistemologically neutral, in that one could use the same model to teach from different epistemological positions?
  • 20th century learning: does this design model lead to the kind of learning that would prepare people for an industrial society, with standardised learning outcomes, will it help identify and select a relatively small elite for higher education or senior positions in society, does it enable learning to be easily organised into similarly performing groups of learners?
  • 21st century learning: does the model encourage the development of the soft skills and the effective management of knowledge needed in a digital world? Does the model enable and support the appropriate educational use of the affordances of new technologies? Does it provide the kind of educational support that learners need to succeed in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world? Does it enable and encourage learners to become global citizens?
  • academic quality: does it lead to deep understanding and transformative learning? Does it enable students to become experts in their chosen subject domain?
  • flexibility: does the model meet the needs of the diversity of learners today? Does it encourage open and flexible access to learning? Does it help teachers and instructors to adapt their teaching to ever changing circumstances?

Now these are my criteria, and you may well want to use different criteria (cost is another important factor), but I have drawn up the table this way because it has helped me consider better where I stand on the different models. Where I think the model is strong on a particular criterion, I have given it three stars, where weak, one star, and n/a for not applicable. Again, you may – no, should – rank the models differently. (See, that’s why I’m a constructivist – if I was an objectivist, I’d tell you what damned criteria to use!)

Figure 6.20 A comparison of different design models

Figure 6.20 A comparison of different design models

It can be seen that the only model that ranks highly on all three criteria of 21st century learning, academic quality and flexibility is online collaborative learning. Experiential learning and agile design also score highly. Transmissive lectures come out worst. This is a pretty fair reflection of my preferences. However, if you are teaching first year civil engineering to over 500 students, your criteria and rankings will almost certainly be different from mine. So please see Figure 6.20 as a heuristic device and not a general recommendation.

Common design characteristics

It is worth noting that, once again, there is extensive research and experience that point to the key factors to be taken into consideration in the successful implementation of teaching, whichever design model is being used. In essence we are talking about using best practices in the design of teaching. Although different design models have different approaches to teaching, there is a significant number of the core principles in the design of teaching and learning that extend across several of the design models. These can be summarised as follows:

  • know your students: identify the key characteristics of the students you will be or could be teaching, and how that will influence your methods of teaching
  • know what you are trying to achieve: in any particular course or program what are the critical areas of content and the particular skills or learning outcomes that students need to achieve as a result of your teaching? What is the best way to identify and assess these desired outcomes?
  • know how students learn: what drives learning for your students? How do you engage or motivate students?  How can you best support that learning?
  • know how to implement this knowledge: What kind of learning environment do you need to create to support student learning? What design model(s) will work best for you within that environment?
  • know how to use technology to support your teaching: this is really a sub-set of the previous point, and is discussed in much more detail in other chapters
  • know what resources you have, and what can be done within the constraints you have to work with
  • ensure that the assessment of students actually measures the intended learning outcomes – and unintended ones.

Design models and the quality of teaching and learning

Lastly, the review of different models indicate some of the key issues around quality:

  • first, what students learn is more likely to be influenced by choosing an appropriate design model for the context in which you are teaching, than by focusing on a particular technology or delivery method. Technology and delivery method are more about access and flexibility and hence learner characteristics than they are about learning. Learning is affected more by pedagogy and the design of instruction.
  • second, different design models are likely to lead to different kinds of learning outcomes. This is why there is so much emphasis in this book on being clear about what knowledge and skills are needed in a digital age. These are bound to vary somewhat across different subject domains, but only to a limited degree. Understanding of content is always going to be important, but the skills of independent learning, critical thinking, innovation and creativity are even more important. Which design model is most likely to help develop these skills in your students?
  • third, quality depends not only on the choice of an appropriate design model, but also on how that approach to teaching is implemented. Online collaborative learning can be done well, or it can be done badly. The same applies to other design models. Following core design principles is critical for the successful use of any particular design model. Also there is considerable research on what the conditions are for success in using some of the newer models. The findings from such research need to be applied when implementing a particular model.
  • lastly students and teachers get better with practice. If you are moving to a new design model, give yourself (and your students) time to get comfortable with it. It will probably take two or three courses where the new model is applied before you begin to feel comfortable that it is producing the results you were hoping for. However, it is better to make some mistakes along the way than to continue to teach comfortably, but not produce the graduates that are needed in the future.

Even when we have chosen a particular design model or teaching approach, though, it still has to be implemented. The remaining chapters in this book will focus then on implementation.

Feedback, please

1. What other criteria might you have used for deciding on an appropriate model?

2. Is this the best way to make a decision about a particular design approach to teaching? If not, how would you go about it?

3. Any other comments about design models for teaching and learning? Any important ones missed?


Chapter 8, on ‘Understanding Technology in Education.’ (Chapter 7 on MOOCs has already been published.)

Educational technology 30 years on: why hasn’t education changed much?

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Apple's 1984 Superbowl advert launching the Macintosh. (This will amuse only Mac users.)

Apple’s 1984 Superbowl advert launching the Macintosh. (This will amuse only Mac users.)

Bates, A.W. (ed.) (1984) The Role of Technology in Distance Education London/New York: Routledge/Taylor and Francis

For some inexplicable reason, Routledge, of the publishing group Taylor and Francis, has decided to revive this book I edited in 1984. As a result a copy landed on my desk recently. It is easy to forget how much has happened in educational technology over the last 30 years, and in particular how far the technology has advanced. At the same time, how little has changed in terms of the challenges of using technology to improve the quality of post-secondary education.

How the technology has changed

In 1984, specially designed and printed texts, or ‘course units’, were still the predominant medium of communication with distance education students. However, the process of print production was cumbersome. Word-processing was possible on personal computers, but many faculty preferred to type their drafts on typewriters, and text then had to be type-set manually from paper copies before printing. Making changes after the units were published was incredibly expensive.

Although the U.K.’s Open University was also still using broadcast television and radio in 1984, its use had actually declined from when it opened in 1971, so by 1984 broadcasting was occupying less than 10 per cent of student study time. Students were flocking to audio and video cassette recordings, because they were able to be played at the student’s own pace and accessed at any time.

Computer assisted learning (CAL) was just beginning to be experimented with at the Open University, in the form of ‘tutorial’ CAL and some simulations in chemistry. However, in 1984 most students could access computers only at local study centres (less than 30 per cent had a computer at home, and none had Internet access). A typical ‘micro’-computer used MS-DOS, weighed 45 lb, and cost between £1,500 – £2,000 or $2,500 – $3,500. Indeed it was in 1984 that Apple introduced its first Macintosh computer (click on the video to see its striking Superbowl advertisement, where presumably Microsoft’s Personal Computer was Big Brother.) The Internet, although in existence, was just in its infancy in the USA and available only to research universities and the military. It would be another four years before the Internet first became available as a public service, and of course the World Wide Web didn’t come into existence for another seven years.

Nevertheless, elements of the future were present in 1984. Teaching by telephone, or telephone tutoring, was becoming widespread, in most cases supporting other media such as printed texts, but also in some cases for delivering interactive lectures. Particularly in the USA, some states had built dedicated private telephone systems for educational purposes, such as the Wisconsin Educational Telephone Network and in Canada, Memorial University in Newfoundland had built an educational telephone network that it shared with 40 other institutions. On public telephone networks, bridge technology was being introduced, enabling between three to nine people to participate at the same time, but most institutions using telephone teaching delivered them through local centres or multi-campuses. The U.K Open University, working with British Telecom, was using an early form of multimedia teleconferencing called CYCLOPS, which enabled two way communication of both voice and graphics over the public telephone network, but again using local study centres. Unfortunately the OU decided not to patent the technology, which it must be regretting today. However, long distance charges were expensive and the quality of sound was often variable, but the educational context was not dissimilar to webinars today.

Cable TV and satellites were being used quite heavily in education in 1984, with dedicated educational cable networks such as TVOntario and Knowledge Network in Canada (which are still in existence today, although they are more like specialty documentary channels than educational service providers). But it was satellite broadcasting that was going to do what has been claimed for MOOCs today – lectures from the world’s best professors being delivered for free into poor developing countries, and we know what happened to that. Video discs were also big in 1984, and had a lot of educational promise but the technology turned out to be too expensive for general educational use. Many other technologies that were discussed in the book faded away completely. Anyone remember teletext technology such as Telidon (Canada), Minitel (France), and Prestel (U.K.)?

So, yes, looking back, it is clear that the Internet – free, readily accessible, and multimedia – and low cost personal computers and social media have revolutionized educational technology in ways that were unimaginable in 1984 (except perhaps by Steve Jobs).

So why hasn’t education changed?

If the technology is so much better and cheaper today, why does post-secondary education still cost as much if not more per student as 30 years ago? Are the learning outcomes any better? It would be hard to make the case that the quality of education has improved over the last 30 years, at least on campus. Class sizes are much larger now, and teaching methods haven’t really changed that much. What has changed is that we have many more students in post-secondary education (and many more students studying online) but the unit costs haven’t dropped.

It’s the system, stupid

Both the cost of creating and delivering content has dropped dramatically and will continue to do so as open content rapidly expands through open textbooks, open research and open educational resources. But I have to admit to being conflicted over the issue as to why costs are the same or indeed somewhat higher than they were 30 years ago.

What’s keeping up the cost is the need for learner support – facilitating learning through discourse and dialogue. Technology in fact is still a relatively small cost within the overall cost of teaching. Faculty salaries constitute at least two thirds of all costs and while we still require an instructor:student ratio of roughly 1:25 in higher education, costs will not come down significantly. However, I am not convinced that we can effectively substitute that instructor:learner interaction by technology alone without losing quality.

But we could still be doing more to reduce costs, and/or improve quality, as follows:

  • implementing open textbooks more widely, saving roughly $1,000 per student per year
  • making savings of up to 10 per cent on the total cost of teaching by greater use of open educational resources and sharing content. For instance, in a large system like Ontario or Quebec, do we need 50 different introductory psychology courses? Would it not be better to develop say four or five really excellent online courses, and share that content across the system, freeing up instructors from delivering content via lectures, and enabling them to spend more time or cover more students in discussion and dialogue? Also with open content instructors could choose different approaches to fit their approach to the topic, again without extra costs. This would ensure that there were different approaches to psychology, and maybe improve the quality of the learning at the same time. For this to happen though institutions need to work together collaboratively rather than competitively (hence it’s a systemic problem that probably only government can fix)
  • get faculty to teach more. Over the last 30 years, the average teaching load for full-time university faculty members, in Canada at least, has actually dropped, so many faculty have a teaching load of roughly four to five courses a year compared with six or more 30 years ago. In other words any possible gains from the implementation of technology for teaching has been more than gobbled up by faculty spending less time teaching. (It may feel like more teaching though if you are teaching larger classes.)
  • re-organise the teaching of large classes, with a senior faculty member responsible for overall design and assessment methods, but with a team of lesser paid but still highly qualified (adjunct) faculty supported by lower cost teaching assistants to ensure that every student has adequate learner support and quality assessment.
  • this of course requires major re-design of teaching, but without changing teaching methods there will be no cost benefits from technology. Instead, technology just adds cost to doing the same things, but with more technology
  • build new institutions for the 21st century and beyond: instead of cramming even more students into existing institutions, why not create some new institutions from scratch designed around the cost-effective use of technology, as the UK government did in 1969, and the Catalan government did in 1995. Start by building the institution at 50% of the capital cost of a traditional university and 75% of the average operating cost per student, with modern course design to maintain or improve quality standards.

None of this can happen without serious systemic change. This is a major challenge for senior administrators, institutional governing boards, and above all government. The aim also has to be clear. It is not to cut costs alone, but to improve the quality of the output – better qualified students fit for a digital age. But it is no longer acceptable to continue to invest in technology without demanding at the same time better results.





‘Agile’ Design: Flexible designs for the digital age

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Zen Yoga Chair: Image © Best Interior and Architecture,

Zen Yoga Chair: Image © Best Interior and Architecture

Before I was rudely interrupted by MOOCs, I had almost finished my chapter on Models for Designing Teaching and Learning for my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.‘ I have now finished the last of the design models, which I have called ‘Agile Design’ because it is a new and as yet unestablished approach to course design.

I have to admit going out on a limb with this particular section, because I couldn’t really find any prior literature that adequately describes this approach, and there are elements of other design models that appear in ‘Agile’ design, but I have seen a few examples of it and they are clearly different from other approaches to course design. All this means that I’m really looking for feedback and advice, so here goes.

Scenario E: ETEC 522: Ventures in e-Learning

Mike: Hey, George, come and sit down and tell Allison and Rav about that weird course you’re taking from UBC.

George: Hi, you two. Yeah, it’s a great course, very different from any other I’ve taken.

Rav.: What’s it about?

George: It’s how to go about starting up a technology company.

Allison: But I thought you were doing a masters in education.

George: Yeah, I am. This course is looking at how new technologies can be used in education and how to build a business around one of these technologies.

Mike: Really, George? So what about all your socialist principles, the importance of public education, and all that? Are you giving up and going to become a fat capitalist?

George: No, it’s not like that. What the course is really making me do is think about how we could be using technology better in school or college.

Mike: And how to make a profit out of it, by the sound of it.

Rav.: Shut up, Mike – I’m curious, George, since I’m doing a real business program. You’re going to learn how to set up a business in 13 weeks? Gimme a break.

George: It’s more about becoming an entrepreneur – someone who takes risks and tries something different.

Mike.: With someone else’s money.

George: Do you really want to know about this course, or are you just wanting to give me a hard time?

Allison: Yes, shut up, Mike. Have you chosen a technology yet, George?

George: Almost. We spend most of the course researching and analysing emerging technologies that could have an application in education. We have to find a technology, research it then come up with a plan of how it could be used in education, and how a business could be built around it. But I think the real aim is to get us to think about how technology could improve or change teaching or learning..

Rav.: So what’s the technology you’ve chosen?

George: You’re jumping too far ahead, Rav. We go through two boot camps, one on analysing the edtech marketplace, and one on entrepreneurship: what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Why are you laughing, Mike?

Mike: I just can’t see you in combat uniform, crawling through tubes under gun fire, with a book in your hand.

George: Not that kind of bootcamp. This course is totally online. Our instructor points us in the direction of a few technologies to get us started, but because there’s more stuff coming out all the time, we’re encouraged to make our own choices about what to research. And we all help each other. I must have looked at more than 50 products or services so far, and we all share our analyses. I’m down to possibly three at the moment, but I’m going to have to make my mind up soon, as I have to do a YouTube elevator pitch for my grade.

Rav.: A what?

George: If you look at most of these products, there’s a short YouTube video that pitches the business. I’ve got to make the case for whatever technology I choose in just under eight minutes. That’s going to be 25% of my grade.

Allison: Wow, that’s tough.

George: Well, we all help each other. We have to do a preliminary recording, then everyone pitches in to critique it. Then we have a few days to send in our final version.

Allison: What else do you get grades for?

George: I got 25% of my marks for an assignment that analysed a particular product called Dybuster which is used to help learners with dyslexia. I looked mainly at its educational strengths and weaknesses, and its likely commercial viability. For my second assignment, also worth 25%, we had to build an application of a particular product or service, in my case a module of teaching using a particular product. There were four of us altogether working as  a team to do this. Our team designed a short instructional module that showed a chemical reaction, using an off-the-shelf online simulation tool that is free for people to use. I’ll get my last 25% from an e-portfolio where I’ve collected together my contributions to helping other students on the course with their projects.

Allison: But what I don’t understand is: what’s the curriculum? What text books do you have to read? What do you have to know?

George: Well, there isn’t a set curriculum, except for the two boot camps, and they only take a week each. I’ve already learned a lot, just by searching and analysing different products over the Internet. We have to think about and justify our decisions. What kind of teaching philosophy do they imply? What criteria am I using when I support or reject a particular product? Is this a sustainable tool? I don’t want to have to get rid of good teaching material because the company’s gone bust and doesn’t support the technology I’m using any more. What I’m really learning though is to think about technology differently. Previously I wasn’t really thinking about teaching differently. I was just trying to find a technology that made my life easier. But this course has woken me up to the real possibilities. I feel I’m in a much better position now to shake up my own school and move them into the digital age.

Allison (sighs): Well, I guess that’s the difference between an undergraduate and a graduate course. You couldn’t do this unless you already knew a lot about education, could you?

George: I’m not so sure about that, Allison. It doesn’t seem to have stopped a lot of entrepreneurs from developing tools for teaching!

Mike: George, I’m sorry. I can’t wait for you to become a rich capitalist – it’s your turn to buy the drinks.

Scenario based on a UBC graduate course for the Master in Educational Technology.

The instructors are David Vogt and David Porter, assisted by Jeff Miller, the instructional designer for the course.

6.8.1 Why the need for more flexible design models?

Adamson (2012) states:

The systems under which the world operates and the ways that individual businesses operate are vast and complex – interconnected to the point of confusion and uncertainty. The linear process of cause and effect becomes increasingly irrelevant, and it is necessary for knowledge workers to begin thinking in new ways and exploring new solutions.

In particular knowledge workers must deal with situations and contexts that are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (what Adamson calls a VUCA environment). This certainly applies to teachers working with ever new, emerging technologies, very diverse students, and a rapidly changing external world that puts pressure on institutions to change.

If we look at course design, how does a teacher respond to rapidly developing new content, new technologies or apps being launched on a daily basis, to a constantly changing student base, to pressure to develop the knowledge and skills that are needed in a digital age? For instance, even setting prior learning outcomes is fraught in a VUCA environment, unless you set them at an abstract ‘skill’ level such as thinking flexibly, networking, and information retrieval and analysis. Students need to develop the key knowledge management skills of knowing where to find relevant information, how to assess, evaluate and appropriately apply such information. This means exposing them to less than certain knowledge and providing them with the skills, practice and feedback to assess and evaluate such knowledge, then apply that to solving real world problems.

In order to do this, learning environments need to be created that are rich and constantly changing, but which at the same time enable students to develop and practice the skills and acquire the knowledge they will need in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.

6.8.2 Core features of flexible design models

Describing the design features is a challenge, for two reasons. First, there is no single approach to flexible design. The whole point of a flexible design is to be adaptable to the circumstances in which it operates. Second, it is only with the development of light, easy to use technology and media in the last few years that instructors and course designers have started to break away from the standard design models, so flexible designs are still emerging.

First, it is important to distinguish this approach from rapid instructional design (Meier, 2000) or rapid prototyping, which are really both streamlined versions of the ADDIE model. Although rapid instructional design/rapid protyping enable courses or modules to be designed more quickly (especially important for corporate training), they still follow the same kind of sequential or iterative processes as in the ADDIE model, but in a more compressed form. Rapid instructional design and rapid prototyping might be considered particular kinds of flexible design, but they lack some of the most important characteristics outlined below:

  • Light and nimble: if ADDIE is a 100-piece orchestra, with a complex score and long rehearsals, then flexible design models are a jazz trio who get together for a single performance then break up until the next time. Although there may be a short preparation time before the course starts, most of the decisions about what will go into the course, what tools will be used, what activities learners will do, and sometimes even how students will be assessed, are decided as the course progresses. On the teaching side, there are usually only a few people involved in the actual design, one or sometimes two instructors and possibly an instructional designer, who nevertheless meet frequently during the offering of the course to make decisions based on feedback from learners and how learners are progressing through the course. However, many more content contributors may be invited – or spontaneously offer – to participate on a single occasion as the course progresses.
  • Content, learner activities, tools used and assessment vary, according to the changing environment. The content to be covered in a course is likely to be highly flexible, based more on emerging knowledge and the interests or prior experience of the learners, although the core skills that the course aims to develop are more likely to remain constant. For instance, for ETEC 522, the overall objective is to develop the skills needed to be a pioneer or innovator in education, and this remains constant over each iteration of the course. However, because the technology is rapidly developing with new products, apps and services every year, the content of the course is quite different from year to year. Also learner activities and methods of assessment are also likely to change, because students can use new tools or technology themselves for learning as they become available. Very often learners themselves seek out and organise much of the core content of the course and are free to choose what tools they use.
  • The design attempts to exploit the affordances of either existing or emerging technologies. Flexible design aims to exploit fully the educational potential of new tools or software, which means sometimes changing at least sub-goals. This may mean developing different skills in learners from year to year, as the technology changes and allows new things to be done. The emphasis here is not so much on doing the same thing better with new technology, but striving for new and different outcomes that are more relevant in a digital world. ETEC 522 for instance did not start with a learning management system. Instead,  a web site, built in WordPress, was used as the starting point for student activities, because students as well as instructors were posting content, but in another year the content focus of the course was mainly on mobile learning, so apps and other mobile tools were strong components of the course.
  • Sound, pedagogical principles guide the overall design of a course – to a point. Just as most successful jazz trios work within a shared framework of melody, rhythm, and musical composition, so is flexible design shaped by overarching principles of best practice. Most successful flexible designs have been guided by core design principles associated with ‘good’ teaching, such as clear learning outcomes or goals, assessment linked to these goals, strong learner support, including timely and individualised feedback, active learning, collaborative learning, and regular course maintenance based on learner feedback, all within a rich learning environment. Sometimes though deliberate attempts are made to move away from an established best practice for experimental reasons, but usually on a small scale, to see if the experiment works without risking the whole course..
  • Experiential, open and applied learning. Usually this kind of course design is strongly embedded in the real, external world. Much or all the course may be open to other than registered students. For instance, a good deal of ETEC 522, such as the final YouTube business pitches, is openly available to those interested in the topics. Sometimes this results in entrepreneurs contacting the course with suggestions for new tools or services, or just to share experience. Another example is a course on Latin American studies from a Canadian university. This particular course had an open, student-managed wiki, where they could discuss contemporary events as they arose. This course was active at the same time that the Argentine government nationalised the Spanish oil company, Repsol. Several students posted comments critical of the government action, but after a week, a professor from a university in Argentina, who had come across the wiki by accident while searching the Internet, responded, laying out a detailed defence of the government’s policy. This was then made a formal topic for discussion within the course. Such courses may though be only partially open. Discussion of sensitive subjects for instance may still take place behind a password controlled discussion forum, while other parts of the course may be open to all.

As experience grows in this kind of design, other and perhaps clearer design principles are likely to emerge.

Strengths and weaknesses of flexible design models

The main advantage of flexible design is that it focuses directly on preparing students for a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. It aims explicitly at helping students develop many of the specific skills they will need in a digital age, such as knowledge management, multimedia communications skills, critical thinking, innovation, and digital literacy embedded within a subject domain. Where flexible design has been successfully used, students have found the design approach highly stimulating and great fun, and instructors have been invigorated and enthused with their teaching. Flexible design enables courses to be developed and offered quickly and at much lower initial cost than ADDIE-based approaches.

However, flexible design approaches are very new and have not really been much written about, never mind evaluated. There is no ‘school’ or set of agreed principles to follow. (Maybe it needs a catchy name, which is why, somewhat tongue in cheek, I originally entitled the post/chapter: ‘Flash Design.’ However, thanks to Antonio Dias de Figueiredo’s comment below, I think ‘agile’ design is a better term.) The flexible design model though is not however the same as rapid instructional design (Meier, 2000) which is really a boiled down version of the ADDIE approach, but it could be argued that most of the things in flexible design are covered in other teaching models, such as discovery and/or experiential learning. Despite this, innovative instructors are beginning to develop courses such as ETEC 522 and there is a consistency in the basic design principles that give them a certain coherence and shape, even though each course or program appears on the surface to be very different (another example of flexible design, but with quite a different overall program from ETEC 522, is the Integrated Science program at McMaster University.)

Certainly flexible design approaches require confident instructors willing to take a risk, and success is heavily dependent on instructors having a good background in best teaching practices and/or strong instructional design support from innovative and creative instructional designers. Because of the relative lack of experience in such design approaches the limitations are not well identified yet. For instance, this approach can work well with relatively small class sizes but how well will it scale? Successful use probably also depends on learners already having a good foundational knowledge base in the subject domain. Nevertheless I expect more flexible designs for learning to grow over the coming years, because they are more likely to meet the needs of a VUCA world.

Over to you

What I really need here are more examples of flexible learning design. Do you know a course that meets these five design principles? If so please let me know (and a link to the course or course materials would be really appreciated). I would expect that some courses built around open educational resources might reflect this model, for instance.

Now for some more specific questions:

1. Is this design model truly different from others or is it just a variation on other design models? If so which?

2. If you have experience of teaching in this way, can you add to the strengths or weaknesses of this approach and also provide  a short description of the how the course is designed?

3. Do you think an ‘agile’/flexible design approach will increase or undermine academic excellence? What are your reasons?


I will be finalizing the chapter on design models, so I will do a final post that sets out the main conclusion on design models and key takeaways from the chapter.

A ‘starter’ bibliography on MOOCs

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Image: ©, 2014

Image: ©, 2014

For the increasing number of students doing Masters’ dissertations or Ph.D’s on MOOCs I have collected together for convenience all the references made in my chapter on MOOCs for my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital World.’ However, there are many other publications – this cannot be considered a comprehensive list. Also note the date of this blog post: anything published after this will not be here, unless you let me know about it.

In return, I would really appreciate other suggestions for references that you have found to be valuable or influential. I’m now less interested in ‘opinion pieces’ but I am looking for more papers that reflect actual experience or research on MOOCs.

Balfour, S. P. (2013). Assessing writing in MOOCs: Automated essay scoring and calibrated peer review. Research & Practice in Assessment, Vol. 8.

Bates, A. (1985) Broadcasting in Education: An Evaluation London: Constables

Bates, A. and Sangrà, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley and Co

Bates, T. (2012) What’s right and what’s wrong with Coursera-style MOOCs Online Learning and Distance Education Resources, August 5

Bayne, S. (2014) Teaching, Research and the More-than-Human in Digital Education Oxford UK: EDEN Research Workshop (keynote: no printed record available)

Blackall, L. (2014) Open online courses and massively untold stories, GoogleDocs

Book, P. (2103) ACE as Academic Credit Reviewer–Adjustment, Accommodation, and Acceptance WCET Learn, July 25

Chauhan, A. (2014) Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS): Emerging Trends in Assessment and Accreditation Digital Education Review, No. 25

Christensen, C. (2010) Disrupting Class, Expanded Edition: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns New York: McGraw-Hill

Christensen, C. and Eyring, H. (2011), The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education, New York, New York, USA: John Wiley & Sons,

Christensen, C. and Weise, M. (2014) MOOCs disruption is only beginning, The Boston Globe, May 9

Collins, E. (2013) SJSU Plus Augmented Online Learning Environment Pilot Project Report San Jose CA: The Research and Planning Group for California Colleges

Colvin, K. et al. (2014) Learning an Introductory Physics MOOC: All Cohorts Learn Equally, Including On-Campus Class, IRRODL, Vol. 15, No. 4

Daniel, J. (2012) Making sense of MOOCs: Musings in a maze of myth, paradox and possibility Seoul: Korean National Open University

Dillenbourg, P. (ed.) (1999) Collaborative-learning: Cognitive and Computational Approaches. Oxford: Elsevier

Dillenbourg, P. (2014) MOOCs: Two Years Later, Oxford UK: EDEN Research Workshop (keynote: no printed record available)

Downes, S. (2012) Massively Open Online Courses are here to stay, Stephen’s Web, July 20

Downes, S. (2014) The MOOC of One, Valencia, Spain, March 10

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

Falchikov, N. and Goldfinch, J. (2000) Student Peer Assessment in Higher Education: A Meta-Analysis Comparing Peer and Teacher Marks Review of Educational Research, Vol. 70, No. 3

Firmin, R. et al. (2014) Case study: using MOOCs for conventional college coursework Distance Education, Vol. 35, No. 2

Friedland, T. (2013) Revolution hits the universities, New York Times, January 26

Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Haynie, D. (2014). State Department hosts ‘MOOC Camp’ for online learners. US News,January 20

Hernandez, R. et al. (2014) Promoting engagement in MOOCs through social collaboration Oxford UK: Proceedings of the 8th EDEN Research Workshop

Hill, P. (2012) Four Barriers that MOOCs Must Overcome to Build a Sustainable Model e-Literate, July 24

Ho, A. et al. (2014) HarvardX and MITx: The First Year of Open Online Courses Fall 2012-Summer 2013 (HarvardX and MITx Working Paper No. 1), January 21

Hollands, F. and Tirthali, D. (2014) MOOCs: Expectations and Reality New York: Columbia University Teachers’ College, Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education

Hülsmann, T. (2003) Costs without camouflage: a cost analysis of Oldenburg University’s  two graduate certificate programs offered  as part of the online Master of Distance Education (MDE): a case study, in Bernath, U. and Rubin, E., (eds.) Reflections on Teaching in an Online Program: A Case Study Oldenburg, Germany: Bibliothecks-und Informationssystem der Carl von Ossietsky Universität Oldenburg

Jaschik, S. (2013) MOOC Mess, Inside Higher Education, February 4

Knox, J. (2014) Digital culture clash: ‘massive’ education in the e-Learning and Digital Cultures Distance Education, Vol. 35, No. 2

Kop, R. (2011) The Challenges to Connectivist Learning on Open Online Networks: Learning Experiences during a Massive Open Online Course International Review of Research into Open and Distance Learning, Vol. 12, No. 3

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Lyotard, J-J. (1979) La Condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir: Paris: Minuit

Mackness, J. (2013) cMOOCs and xMOOCs – key differences, Jenny Mackness, October 22

Milligan, C., Littlejohn, A. and Margaryan, A. (2013) Patterns of engagement in connectivist MOOCs, Merlot Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Vol. 9, No. 2

Piech, C., Huang, J., Chen, Z., Do, C., Ng, A., & Koller, D. (2013). Tuned models of peer assessment in MOOCs. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University.

Rumble, G. (2001) The costs and costing of networked learning, Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Vol. 5, No. 2

Suen, H. (2104) Peer assessment for massive open online courses (MOOCs) International Review of Research into Open and Distance Learning, Vol. 15, No. 3

Tapscott, D. (undated) The transformation of education

University of Ottawa (2013) Report of the e-Learning Working Group Ottawa ON: The University of Ottawa

van Zundert, M., Sluijsmans, D., van Merriënboer, J. (2010). Effective peer assessment processes: Research findings and future directions. Learning and Instruction, 20, 270-279

Watters, A. (2012) Top 10 Ed-Tech Trends of 2012: MOOCs Hack Education, December 3

Yousef, A. et al. (2014) MOOCs: A Review of the State-of-the-Art Proceedings of 6th International Conference on Computer Supported Education – CSEDU 2014, Barcelona, Spain


I’m glad I called this a ‘starter’ list. See the comment section for many more references, but especially Katy Morgan’s MOOC Research Literature Browser, which has many more articles published in peer review journals. Thanks to Jim Ellis, UKOU, for directing me to this, and above all to Katy Morgan for doing a much more thorough coverage of the literature than I have.

Thanks also to all the others who have made suggestions for this list.