May 27, 2016

Choosing a ‘good’ post-secondary online learning program

Listen with webReader

woman at computer 2

I am constantly asked to recommend ‘good’ online learning programs. This is a difficult question to answer, as it’s impossible for any single person to know all the good online programs, and in any case, any selection is going to be highly subjective. However, it is possible to suggest a set of criteria or questions to help you in your decision, if you are thinking of taking an online program.

Criteria for selection

1. What prior qualifications do I need in order to take this program? Although courses may be online, they are not necessarily open. Generally high school completion is the minimum level of qualification for admission for a college or university online program, or a bachelor’s degree for graduate programs, except for open universities (see below).

2. What is the general status of the offering institution, for example, is it an accredited school with a generally good reputation?

3. Experience in online learning: how long has it been offering online programs? Institutions, like people, get better with practice.

4. The size of the operation: does it have many online courses, whole online programs, and lots of online students? If it does it is likely to have good systems in place to support online learning. On the other hand, if it’s grown very rapidly, it may have cut corners on quality.

5. Does any tenured or full-time instructor have overall responsibility for the course or program? If not, it is likely to be primarily a money-making operation for the institution.

6. What is the instructor:student ratio? Will students be taught by full-time faculty, adjunct faculty or teaching assistants? (I have no problem with adjunct faculty, so long as they are well qualified academically and responsible to a full-time faculty member, but beware of courses taught online by teaching assistants or unqualified ‘tutors’.)  Do instructors or faculty receive any training in teaching online? (This is especially important for contract or adjunct instructors.)

7. Do you personally know anything about the program? Have you studied any of their online courses – or on-campus courses for that matter? Do you know the people managing the online program?

8. What do students think about the program? What’s the completion rate? (Well designed online courses should have a successful completion rate of above 80%, and for a whole program, more than half of those who start the program should complete it.)

9. How expensive is it? Can I afford it? Will I be eligible for grants or student loans if I take this program?

10. What can I do with the qualification? Can I transfer the credits from an online course into an on-campus program? Will the qualification be recognised by any appropriate professional or accrediting agency?

My recommendation to anyone considering an online course or program is to apply the above criteria to any course or program you are interested in. Any self-respecting institution should be able to answer these questions, through the program web site, or by your calling the office that supports the program. Getting answers to these ten questions is more likely to enable you to find the right course than any recommendation I may make about individual courses or programs.

Personal recommendations

Nevertheless, I’m willing to stick my neck out, based mainly on my personal knowledge, but caveat emptor: you are responsible for your own decisions, so don’t blame me if one of these recommendations doesn’t work out for you. And just because I haven’t mentioned a particular institution doesn’t mean that it has poor quality programs – there are too many good programs to list them all.

1. Publicly funded dual mode institutions

These are publicly funded and accredited institutions that offer both on-campus and distance teaching, and usually have done so for many years. Typical examples are the land grant universities in the USA, which were established originally with state-wide responsibilities, e.g. Penn State’s World Campus, the University of Wisconsin System eCampus, and the University of New Mexico Online. These online courses and programs carry exactly the same weight as their on-campus courses. In Canada, similar institutions would be Memorial University, Laval University (in French), the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Manitoba, and the University of British Columbia.

These universities usually use their own ‘on-campus’ faculty combined with professional support staff such as instructional designers experienced in online and distance learning, although they usually also hire contract or adjunct instructors to support the main faculty instructor.

In Mexico, the Universidad de Guadalajara has an excellent online program in Spanish through its Virtual Campus.

There are many others, too numerous to list all of them, so check your local state or province’s public universities and then ask the ten questions above, as not all ‘dual-mode’ institutions have moved quickly enough away from print-based to fully online, so check that the course or program you are interested in is available online.

However, in general, choosing an online program from any university in this category is probably your safest bet in terms of quality and value.

2. Publicly funded universities that have specialised in online or blended learning.

These are universities or colleges that did not have much prior history of distance education but have moved extensively into online learning, both in blended and fully online formats. The best example in the USA is the University of Central Florida, Another with a strong online program is Empire State College in the State University of New York system. In Canada, the University of Guelph, the University of Ottawa (English and French), Laurentian University (English and French) and Queen’s University in Ontario, and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, all have extensive online programs.

One of the largest online programs in the USA is the University of Maryland University College, which has many US servicemen as students. However, having been a guest tutor on some of their courses, I’m not particularly impressed with the overall quality, although some individual courses/programs are good.

In Canada, Royal Roads University in British Columbia offers a unique blended learning model consisting of one semester on campus and two or more semesters online, as well as some fully online programs, mainly at graduate level.

3. Publicly funded two-year community colleges

Many publicly funded community colleges in both the USA and Canada have excellent online programs. George Brown College and Algonquin College in Ontario have extensive online programs.

The Colorado Community College System offers a wide range of courses online, including science courses using home kits and remote labs. There are several other regional or state-wide online consortia in the USA, such as the Southern Regional Education Board’s Electronic Campus, covering 16 states.

Rio Salado Community College in Arizona has one of the largest online programs in the USA. However, there have been criticisms about the quality, because of its heavy reliance on short-term contract instructors who often lack training in online teaching. This is something to watch for in any institution that has suddenly and rapidly expanded its online programs.

3. Private, non-profit universities

The Western Governors University specializes in competency-based learning, which allows you to study at your own pace and take into account any prior learning or competencies, which means you may be able to complete a program more quickly. Usually programs are designed in consultation with major employers, ensuring acceptance of the degree. For more on the Western Governors model, click here.

The University of Southern New Hampshire has one of the largest online programs in the USA, and is also moving heavily into competency based learning.

Tec de Monterrey is a dual-mode private, non-profit university in Mexico that offers high quality online programs in Spanish.

4. Publicly funded open universities.

The best online is the Open University of Catalonia, in Spain, which was founded in 1996 as a purely online university. It offers several graduate programs in English, and many undergraduate as well as graduate programs in Spanish and Catalan. It accepts many international enrolments, particularly from Latin America.

Tèluq in Quebec offers high quality online programs in French.

The U.K. Open University and the Open University of the Netherlands are also leaders in online learning. The U.K. Open University consistently ranks in the top ten universities in the U.K. (out of over 180) in terms of teaching.

There are many other open universities around the world, some with hundreds of thousands of students (e.g. the Open University of China, Anadolu Open University in Turkey, the Open University in Indonesia, Indira Gandhi Open University in India, and the University of South Africa). However, because many students in these countries lack easy access to the Internet, most of these universities are still primarily print-based.

Indeed, most open universities have a heavy legacy of print-based education which has limited their ability to move completely online. I’m not currently recommending Athabasca University in Canada, because it’s future is uncertain, and many of its undergraduate programs are still print-based, although it has some excellent online graduate programs. The same applies to Thompson Rivers University’s Open Learning program in British Columbia.

Nevertheless, open universities offer many people their only chance of a higher education, especially in developing countries.

5. For-profit private universities

I hesitate to recommend for-profit institutions such as the University of Phoenix, or Kaplan, not because they don’t offer high quality online programs – they do – but because of ongoing problems with federal student aid and recognition of their degrees. For further discussion especially of the University of Phoenix, see ‘How does the University of Phoenix measure up?

6. MOOCs

If you are not looking for a qualification, but are just interested in a particular topic, there are many free, massive open online courses (MOOCs) available to you from many of the world’s leading universities. The following are the main platforms/sites where you can find such courses:

Open Education Europa provides a comprehensive list of MOOCs being offered by European institutions.

However, be warned: while certificates may be offered for successful course completion, these are not usually accepted by even the offering institutions towards a formal degree. However the OERu is building a free degree program on open educational resources.

7. General advice

It makes sense to take an online program from any local institution that you know well and trust. There are risks in taking online programs from out of state or out of country, unless the institution has an international reputation. There may also be language or cultural issues. It is particularly important that you get frequent and good quality interaction with an instructor on the program. Nevertheless the choice has never been so rich.

Over to you

There are many other universities and colleges offering excellent online programs, too many to number, but if you have experience of taking online programs and would like to make recommendations (positive or negative), please use the comment box below.

However, I will not publish any comments that are not offered in a thoughtful and constructive manner, and especially if they are being used solely to market (or trash) a particular program.

And any requests to list or mention the many commercial providers of online programs will be ignored.

 

Ensuring quality teaching in a digital age: key takeaways

Listen with webReader
Building the foundations of quality teaching and learning

Building the foundations of quality teaching and learning

I have now completed and published Chapter 11, ‘Ensuring quality teaching in a digital age‘, for my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.’

Unlike earlier chapters, I have not published this as a series of blog posts, as it is based on an earlier set of blog posts called: ‘Nine steps to quality online learning.’

However, there are some substantial changes. The focus here is as much on applying basic principles of course design to face-to-face and blended/hybrid learning as to fully online course design.

More importantly, this chapter attempts to pull together all the principles from all previous ten chapters into a set of practical steps towards the design of quality teaching in a digital age.

Purpose of the chapter

When you have read this chapter, and in conjunction with what has been learned in previous chapters, you should be able to:

  • define quality in terms of teaching in a digital age
  • determine what your preferred approaches are to teaching and learning
  • decide what mode of delivery is most appropriate for any course you are responsible for
  • understand why teamwork is essential for effective teaching in a digital age
  • make best use of existing resources for any course
  • choose and use the right technology and tools to support your learning
  • set appropriate learning goals for teaching in a digital age
  • design an appropriate course structure and set of learning activities
  • know when and how to communicate with learners
  • evaluate your teaching, make necessary improvements, and improve your teaching through further innovation.

What is covered in this chapter

Key takeaways

1. For the purposes of this book, quality is defined as: teaching methods that successfully help learners develop the knowledge and skills they will require in a digital age.

2. Formal national and institutional quality assurance processes do not guarantee quality teaching and learning. In particular, they focus on past ‘best’ practices, processes to be done before actual teaching, and often ignore the affective, emotional or personal aspects of learning. Nor do they focus particularly on the needs of learners in a digital age.

3. New technologies and the needs of learners in a digital age require a re-thinking of traditional campus-based teaching, especially where it is has been based mainly on the transmission of knowledge. This means re-assessing the way you teach and determining how you would really like to teach in a digital age. This requires imagination and vision rather than technical expertise.

4. It is important to determine the most appropriate mode of delivery, based on teaching philosophy, the needs of students, the demands of the discipline, and the resources available.

5. It is best to work in a team. Blended and especially fully online learning require a range of skills that most instructors are unlikely to have. Good course design not only enables students to learn better but also controls teacher and instructor workload. Courses look better with good graphic and web design and professional video production. Specialist technical help frees up teachers and instructors to concentrate on the knowledge and skills that students need to develop.

6. Full use should be made of existing resources, including institutionally-supported learning technologies, open educational resources, learning technology staff, and the experience of your colleagues.

7. The main technologies you will be using should be mastered, so you are professional and knowledgeable about their strengths and weaknesses for teaching.

8. Learning goals that are appropriate for learners in a digital age need to be clearly defined. The skills students need should be embedded within their subject domain, and these skills should be formally assessed.

9. A coherent and clearly communicable structure, and learning activities for a course, should be developed that are manageable in terms of workload for both students and instructor.

10. Regular and on-going instructor/teacher presence, especially when students are studying partly or wholly online, is essential for student success. This means effective communication between teacher/instructor and students. It is particularly important to encourage inter-student communication, either face-to-face or online.

11. The extent to which the new learning goals of re-designed courses aimed at developing the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age have been achieved should be carefully evaluated and ways in which the course could be improved should be identified.

Over to you

Although the previous blog posts on nine steps to quality online learning were well received (they have been used in some post-secondary education courses) feedback on this revised book version will be much appreciated.  I haven’t seen anything similar that tries to integrate basic principles across all three modes of delivery, so I am especially interested to see how these are perceived in terms of regular classroom and blended learning.

Up next

The final chapter, which will take a brief look at the institutional policies and strategies needed to support teachers and instructors wanting to teach well in a digital age. It will deal explicitly with what we should expect (and more importantly, not expect) of teachers and instructors, issues around faculty development and teacher training, working methods for teachers and instructors, and learning technology support.

I aim to finish this (and the whole book, at least in first draft form) by March 14. French and Spanish translations are already under way.

What do we mean by quality when teaching in a digital age?

Listen with webReader
© Insights, 2012

© Insights, 2012

Before I start on my nine steps to quality learning for my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, I have needed to ‘clear the decks’ about what we mean by quality. I thought this bit might be useful to share, as quality is a very slippery concept at the best of times.

The aim of this chapter is to provide some practical guidelines for teachers and instructors to ensure quality teaching in a digital age. Before I can do this, however, it is necessary to clarify what is meant by ‘quality’ in education, because I am using ‘quality’ here in a very specific way.

Definitions

Probably there is no other topic in education which generates so much discussion and controversy as ‘quality’. Many books have been written on the topic, but I will cut to the chase and give my definition of quality up-front. For the purposes of this book, quality is defined as:

teaching methods that successfully help learners develop the knowledge and skills they will require in a digital age.

This of course is the short answer to the question. A longer answer means looking, at least briefly, at:

  • institutional and degree accreditation
  • internal (academic) quality assurance processes
  • differences in quality assurance between traditional classroom teaching and online and distance education
  • the relationship between quality assurance processes and learning outcomes
  • ‘quality assurance fit for purpose’: meeting the goals of education in a digital age.

This will then provide the foundations for my recommendations for quality teaching that will follow in this chapter.

Institutional and degree accreditation

Most governments act to protect consumers in the education market by ensuring that institutions are properly accredited and the qualifications they award are valid and are recognised as of being of ‘quality.’ However, the manner in which institutions and degrees are accredited varies a great deal. The main difference is between the USA and virtually any other country.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Network for Education Information states in its description of accreditation and quality assurance in the USA:

Accreditation is the process used in U.S. education to ensure that schools, postsecondary institutions, and other education providers meet, and maintain, minimum standards of quality and integrity regarding academics, administration, and related services. It is a voluntary process based on the principle of academic self-governance. Schools, postsecondary institutions and programs (faculties) within institutions participate in accreditation. The entities which conduct accreditation are associations comprised of institutions and academic specialists in specific subjects, who establish and enforce standards of membership and procedures for conducting the accreditation process.

Both the federal and state governments recognize accreditation as the mechanism by which institutional and programmatic legitimacy are ensured. In international terms, accreditation by a recognized accrediting authority is accepted as the U.S. equivalent of other countries’ ministerial recognition of institutions belonging to national education systems.

In other words, in the USA, accreditation and quality assurance is effectively self-regulated by the educational institutions and faculty through their control of accreditation agencies, although the government does have some ‘weapons of enforcement’, mainly through the withdrawal of student financial aid for students at any institution that the U.S. Department of Education deems to be failing to meet standards.

In many other countries, government has the ultimate authority to accredit institutions and approve degrees, although in countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom, this is often exercised by arm’s length agencies appointed by government, but consisting mainly of representatives from the various institutions within the system. These bodies have a variety of names, but Degree Quality Assurance Board is a typical title.

However, more important than the formal lines of responsibility for quality is how the accrediting agencies actually operate. Usually, once a degree program is approved, there is little follow-up or monitoring afterwards, unless formal complaints are subsequently made about the quality of the program, although many institutions now voluntarily review programs every five years or so. Also, once an institution has been accredited, the accreditation agency may delegate back to the institution the approval of it own degree programs, providing that it has an internal process in place for assuring quality, although where government is formally responsible, new degrees may still come to an accrediting agency, to ensure there is no duplication within the system, that there is a defined market for the program, or where approval to deviate from government guidelines on fees may be requested. Nevertheless, mainly to ensure academic freedom from direct government interference, universities in particular have a large degree of autonomy in most economically advanced countries for determining ‘quality’ in programming.

However, in recent years, some regulatory agencies such as the United Kingdom’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education have adopted formal quality assurance processes based on practices that originated in industry. The U.K. QAA’s Quality Code for Higher Education which aims to guide universities on what the QAA is looking for runs to several hundred pages. Chapter B3 on Learning and Teaching is 25 pages long and has seven indicators of quality. Indicator 4 is typical:

Higher education providers assure themselves that everyone involved in teaching or supporting student learning is appropriately qualified, supported and developed.

Many institutions as a result of pressure from external agencies have therefore put in place formal quality assurance processes over and beyond the normal academic approval processes (see Clarke-Okah et al., 2014, for a typical, low-cost example).

Internal quality assurance

It can be seen then that the internal processes for ensuring quality programs within an institution are particularly important. Although again the process can vary considerably between institutions, at least in universities the process is fairly standard. A proposal for a new degree will usually originate from a group of faculty/instructors within a department. The proposal will be discussed and amended at departmental and/or Faculty meetings, then once approved will go to the university senate for final approval. The administration in the form of the Provost’s Office will usually be involved, particularly where resources, such as new appointments, are required.

Although this is probably an over-generalisation, significantly the proposal will contain information about who will teach the course and their qualifications to teach it, the content to be covered within the program (often as a list of courses with short descriptions), a set of required readings, and usually something about how students will be assessed. Increasingly, such proposals may also include broad learning outcomes for the program.

If there is a proposal for courses within a program or the whole program to be delivered fully online, it is likely that the proposal will come under intense internal scrutiny. What is unlikely to be included in a proposal though is what methods of teaching will be used. This is usually considered the responsibility of individual faculty members. It is this aspect of quality with which this chapter is concerned.

Lastly, some institutions require every program to be reviewed after five or more years of operation, or at the discretion of the senior administration. Again whether and how this is done varies considerably. One common approach is for an internal review process, with an internal evaluation report by a committee set up by the department offering the program, followed by a review of the internal committee’s report by external assessors. This review may or (more frequently) may not lead to significant changes in a program, but this will depend on the instructors responsible for teaching the program agreeing to implement any recommended changes. Less frequently, where enrolment for a program has declined to unacceptable levels or where external complaints about a program have been received, the Vice President Academic may call for an external review of the program, in which case anything is possible, up to and including closure of the program.

Jung and Latchem (2102), in a review of quality assessment processes in a large number of online and distance education institutions around the world, make the following important points about quality assurance processes within institutions:

  • focus on outcomes as the leading measure of quality
  • take a systemic approach to quality assurance
  • see QA as a process of continuous improvement
  • move the institution from external controls to an internal culture of quality
  • poor quality has very high costs so investment in quality is worthwhile.

In particular, Butcher and Wilson-Strydom (2013) warn:

you should not assume that creating quality assurance structures… automatically improves quality….Institutional quality assurance structures and processes are important, but beware of making them an exercise in compliance for accountability, rather than a process of learning and self-improvement that really improves quality.

There are many guidelines for quality traditional classroom teaching. Perhaps the most well know are those of Chickering and Gamson (1987), based on an analysis of 50 years of research into best practices in teaching. They argue that good practice in undergraduate education:

  1. Encourages contact between students and faculty
  2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students.
  3. Encourages active learning.
  4. Gives prompt feedback.
  5. Emphasizes time on task.
  6. Communicates high expectations.
  7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

Online courses and programs

Because online learning was new and hence open to concern about its quality, there have also been many guidelines, best practices and quality assurance criteria created and applied to online programming. All these guidelines and procedures have been derived from the experience of previously successful online programs, best practices in teaching and learning, and research and evaluation of online teaching and learning.

Some degree quality assurance boards (such as the QAA in the UK and PEQAB in Ontario) have put in place specific ‘benchmarks’ for online courses. A comprehensive list of online quality assurance standards, organizations and research on online learning can be found in Appendix 3. Graham et al. (2001) applied Chickering and Gamson’s seven principles for face-to-face teaching to the evaluation of four online courses from a mid-western university in the USA, and adapted these principles for online learning.

Thus ensuring quality in online learning is not rocket science. There is plenty of evidence of what works and what doesn’t, which will be examined in more detail in this chapter. There is no need to build a bureaucracy around this, but there does need to be some mechanism, some way of calling institutions when they fail to meet these standards. However, we should also do the same for campus-based teaching. As more and more already accredited (and ‘high quality’) campus-based institutions start moving into hybrid learning, the establishment of quality in the online learning elements of programs will become even more important.

Thus there are plenty of evidence-based guidelines for ensuring quality in teaching, both face-to-face and online. The main challenge then is to ensure that teachers and instructors are aware of these best practices and that institutions have processes in place to ensure that guidelines for quality teaching are implemented and followed.

Quality assurance, innovation and learning outcomes

It may have been noted that most QA processes are front-loaded, i.e. they look at inputs – such as the academic qualifications of faculty, or the processes to be adopted for effective teaching, such as clear learning objectives – rather than outputs, such as what students have actually learned. They also tend to be backward-looking, that is, they focus on past best practices.

This is particularly important for evaluating new teaching approaches. Butcher and Hoosen (2014) state:

The quality assurance of post-traditional higher education is not straightforward, because openness and flexibility are primary characteristics of these new approaches, whereas traditional approaches to quality assurance were designed for teaching and learning within more tightly structured frameworks.

 However, Butcher and Hoosen (2014) go on to say that:

fundamental judgements about quality should not depend on whether education is provided in a traditional or post-traditional manner …the growth of openness is unlikely to demand major changes to quality assurance practices in institutions. The principles of good quality higher education have not changed…. Quality distance education is a sub-set of quality education…Distance education should be subject to the same quality assurance mechanisms as education generally.’

Such arguments though offer a particular challenge for teaching in a digital age, where it is argued that learning outcomes need to include the development of skills such as independent learning, facility in using social media for communication, and knowledge management, skills that have not been explicitly identified in the past. Quality assurance processes are not usually tied to specific types of learning outcomes, but are more closely linked to general performance measures such as course completion rates, time to degree completion and grades based on past learning goals.

Furthermore, we have already seen in Chapters 9 and 10 that new media and new methods of teaching are emerging that have not been around long enough to be subject to analysis of best practices. A too rigid view of quality assessment based on past practices could have serious negative implications for innovation in teaching and for meeting newly emerging learning needs. ‘Best practice’ may need occasionally to be challenged, so new approaches can be experimented with and evaluated.

Quality assurance: fit for purpose in a digital age

Maxim Jean-Louis, the President of Contact North, at a presentation in 2010 to the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, made a very useful distinction about different ways of looking at quality in education:

  • Quality as ‘Excellence’– a definition that sets abstract goals for institutions and academic communities to always striving to be the best, mainly taken as having elitist undertones. In post-secondary education this could mean winning Nobel prizes, attraction of research funds or the “best” faculty as measured by research output and teaching evaluations. The drawback here is that this tends to also exclude the work of the ‘further education’ sectors, and is not applied equally between disciplines (citation counts do not exist for historians and many other subjects).
  • Quality as ‘Meeting a pre-determined standard’– a definition that requires only a given standard to be met, e.g. a minimum grade, basic competency, the ability to read, write, use a computer, etc. [It might also include competencies and skills, degree completion rates, time to degree completion, etc.] The drawback of this is that setting and measuring this ‘standard’ is difficult at best and idealistic at worst.
  • Quality as ‘fitness for purpose’ – in this construction of quality, we have to decide the extent to which the service or product meets the goals set – does this course or program do what it says it was going to do? Such a construction of quality allows institutions/sectors to define goals themselves according to their mandate and concentrates on meeting the needs of their customers (whether this be upgrading learners, graduate researchers, industry, etc.).

Quality assurance processes must address the increasing diversity of our educational systems. Distance education organizations are not the same as elite traditional universities and shouldn’t try to be. This would mean looking for different measures of quality in the Open University, for instance, than in Cambridge University. Neither one is necessarily better (depending on what they are trying to achieve), but the learning experience ought to be different, even though the intended learning outcomes may be similar; this will mean different design criteria but not necessarily different criteria for assessing the quality of the learning.

In the meantime, much more attention needs to be directed at what campus-based institutions are doing when they move to hybrid or online learning. Are they following best practices, or even better, developing innovative, better teaching methods? The design of xMOOCs and the high drop-out rates of many new two year colleges new to online learning in the USA suggest they are not.

This means that different types of institution will and should evaluate quality differently. If the goal or purpose is to develop the knowledge and skills that learners will need in a digital age, then this is the ‘standard’ by which quality should be assessed, while at the same time taking into account what we already know about general best practices in teaching. The recommendations for quality teaching in a digital age that follow in this chapter are based on these principles.

Over to you

There is so much I wanted to write here about the stupidity of the current system of institutional accreditation and internal quality assurance processes, especially but not exclusively in the United Kingdom, but this section is meant as an introduction to practical guidelines for teaching and learning. So I’ve tried to be uncharacteristically restrained in writing this section. But feedback is even more welcome than usual.

1. (a) First, are there any incorrect facts in this section? This is a large and complex topic and it is easy to get things wrong.

(b) Have I left out anything really important about assessing quality in teaching and learning?

2. One problem with this topic is that it tends to gravitate between two polarised positions: those who believe in absolute truth and those who are relativists. Absolute truthers believe that there is a God-given set of ‘quality’ standards that are set primarily by elite institutions that everyone else should strive to meet. Relativists (like myself) believe that quality is in the eye of the beholder; it all depends on what your goals are. Hence my definition of quality is set among the rather limited goal in one way – and extremely ambitious in another – of developing teaching methods that will help learners develop the knowledge and skills they will need in a digital age. So: any views on my definition of quality? Is it fit for purpose?

3. What do you think of the current system of (a) institutional accreditation and (b) internal quality assurance processes?

My own view is that institutional accreditation is definitely needed to protect against really incompetent or downright dishonest organisations, but, depending on the jurisdiction, it is very much an insider’s process and not very transparent, and while current accreditation processes may set minimum standards it certainly doesn’t do much to improve quality in the system.

Similarly, internal quality assurance processes are far too cosy and protect the status quo. The internal program approval processes are based again on peer review of a very limited kind, with often ‘I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine’ approach to program approval. I’ve been on a number of program reviews as an external reviewer, but rarely see any significant changes, despite sometimes scathing reviews from the externals.

And as for formal QA processes, they are the kiss of death for quality, tangling faculty and administrators in incredibly bureaucratic processes without dealing with the real issues around quality teaching and learning.

Of course, all these practices are in the name of protecting academic freedom, which is important – but surely better processes can be derived for improving quality without threatening academic freedom.

4. So lastly, is it wise for me to restrain myself from adding these types of comments in the book – or will I muddy the waters of what is to come if I do?

References and further reading

Butcher, N. and Wilson-Strydom, M. (2013) A Guide to Quality in Online Learning Dallas TX: Academic Partnerships

Butcher, N. and Hoosen, S. (2014) A Guide to Quality in Post-traditional Online Higher Education Dallas TX: Academic Partnerships

Chickering, A., and Gamson, Z. (1987) ‘Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education’ AAHE Bulletin, March 1987.

Clarke-Okah, W. et al. (2014) The Commonwealth of Learning Review and Improvement Model for Higher Education Institutions Vancouver BC: Commonwealth of Learning

Graham, C. et al. (2001) Seven Principles of Effective Teaching: A Practical Lens for Evaluating Online Courses The Technology Source, March/April

Jung, I. and Latchem, C. (2012) Quality Assurance and Accreditation in Distance Education and e-Learning New York/London: Routledge

Why the fuss about MOOCs? Political, social and economic drivers

Listen with webReader
Daphne Koller's TED talk on MOOCs (click to activate video)

Daphne Koller’s TED talk on MOOCs (click to activate video)

The end of MOOCs

This is the last part of my chapter on MOOCs for my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. In a series of prior posts, I have looked at the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs. Here I summarise this section and look at why MOOCs have gained so much attention.

Brief summary of strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs

The main points of my analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs can be summarised as follows:

Strengths

  • the main value proposition of MOOCs is that through the use of computer automation and/or peer-to-peer communication MOOCs can eliminate the very large variable costs in higher education associated with providing learner support and quality assessment
  • MOOCs, particularly xMOOCs, deliver high quality content from some of the world’s best universities for free to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection
  • MOOCs can be useful for opening access to high quality content, particularly in Third World countries, but to do so successfully will require a good deal of adaptation, and substantial investment in local support and partnerships
  • MOOCs are valuable for developing basic conceptual learning, and for creating large online communities of interest or practice
  • MOOCs are an extremely valuable form of lifelong learning and continuing education
  • MOOCs have forced conventional and especially elite institutions to reappraise their strategies towards online and open learning
  • institutions have been able to extend their brand and status by making public their expertise and excellence in certain academic areas

Weaknesses

  • the high registration numbers for MOOCs are misleading; less than half of registrants actively participate, and of these, only a small proportion successfully complete the course; nevertheless, absolute numbers of successful participants are still higher than for conventional courses
  • MOOCs are expensive to develop, and although commercial organisations offering MOOC platforms have opportunities for sustainable business models, it is difficult to see how publicly funded higher education institutions can develop sustainable business models for MOOCs
  • MOOCs tend to attract those with already a high level of education, rather than widen access
  • MOOCs so far have been limited in the ability to develop high level academic learning, or the high level intellectual skills needed in a knowledge based society
  • assessment of the higher levels of learning remains a challenge for MOOCs, to the extent that most MOOC providers will not recognise their own MOOCs for credit
  • MOOC materials may be limited by copyright or time restrictions for re-use as open educational resources

Why the fuss about MOOCs?

It can be seen from the previous section that the pros and cons of MOOCs are finely balanced. Given though the obvious questions about the value of MOOCs, and the fact that before MOOCs arrived, there had been substantial but quiet progress for over ten years in the use of online learning for undergraduate and graduate programs, you might be wondering why MOOCs have commanded so much media interest, and especially why a large number of government policy makers, economists, and computer scientists have become so ardently supportive of MOOCs, and why there has been such a strong, negative reaction, not only from many traditional university and college instructors, who are right to be threatened by some of the claims being made for MOOCs, but also from many professionals in online learning (see for instance, Bates, 2012; Daniel, 2012; Hill, 2012; Watters, 2013), who might be expected to be more supportive of MOOCs

It needs to be recognised that the discourse around MOOCs is not usually based on a cool, rational, evidence-based analysis of the pros and cons of MOOCs, but is more likely to be driven by emotion, self-interest, fear, or ignorance of what education is actually about. Thus it is important to explore the political, social and economic factors that have driven MOOC mania.

Massive, free and Made in America!

This is what I will call the intrinsic reason for MOOC mania. It is not surprising that, since the first MOOC from Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller attracted 270,000 sign-ups from around the world, since the course was free, and since it came from professors at one of the most prestigious private universities in the USA, the American media were all over it. It was big news in its own right, however you look at it, especially as courses from Sebastian Thrun, another Stanford professor, and others from MIT and Harvard followed shortly, with equally staggering numbers of participants.

It’s the Ivy Leagues!

Until MOOCs came along, the major Ivy League universities in the USA, such as Stanford, MIT, Harvard and UC Berkeley, as well as many of the most prestigious universities in Canada, such as the University of Toronto and McGill, and elsewhere, had largely ignored online learning in any form.

However, by 2011, online learning, in the form of for credit undergraduate and graduate courses, was making big inroads at many other, very respectable universities, such as Carnegie Mellon, Penn State, and the University of Maryland in the USA, and also in many of the top tier public universities in Canada and elsewhere, to the extent that almost one in three course enrolments in the USA were now in online courses. Furthermore, at least in Canada, the online courses were often getting good completion rates and matching on-campus courses for quality.

The Ivy League and other highly prestigious universities that had ignored online learning were beginning to look increasingly out of touch by 2011. By launching into MOOCs, these prestigious universities could jump to the head of the queue in terms of technology innovation, while at the same time protecting their selective and highly personal and high cost campus programs from direct contact with online learning. In other words, MOOCs gave these prestigious universities a safe sandbox in which to explore online learning, and the Ivy League universities gave credibility to MOOCs, and, indirectly, online learning as a whole.

It’s disruptive!

For years before 2011, various economists, philosophers and industrial gurus had been predicting that education was the next big area for disruptive change due to the march of new technologies (see for instance Lyotard, 1979; Tapscott, undated; Christensen and Eyring, 2011).

Online learning in credit courses though was being quietly absorbed into the mainstream of university teaching, through blended learning, without any signs of major disruption, but here with MOOCs was a massive change, providing evidence at long last in the education sector to support the theories of disruptive innovation.

It’s Silicon Valley!

It is no coincidence that the first MOOCs were all developed by entrepreneurial computer scientists. Ng and Koller very quickly went on to create Coursera as a private commercial company, followed shortly by Thrun, who created Udacity. Anant Agarwal, a computer scientist at MIT, went on to head up edX.

The first MOOCs were very typical of Silicon Valley start-ups: a bright idea (massive, open online courses with cloud-based, relatively simple software to handle the numbers), thrown out into the market to see how it might work, supported by more technology and ideas (in this case, learning analytics, automated marking, peer assessment) to deal with any snags or problems. Building a sustainable business model would come later, when some of the dust had settled.

As a result it is not surprising that almost all the early MOOCs completely ignored any pedagogical theory about best practices in teaching online, or any prior research on factors associated with success or failure in online learning. It is also not surprising as a result that a very low percentage of participants actually successfully complete MOOCs – there’s a lot of catching up still to do, but so far Coursera and to a lesser extent edX have continued to ignore educators and prior research in online learning. They would rather do their own research, even if it means re-inventing the wheel. The commercial MOOC platform providers though are beginning to work out a sustainable business model.

It’s the economy, stupid!

Of all the reasons for MOOC mania, Bill Clinton’s famous election slogan resonates most with me. It should be remembered that by 2011, the consequences of the disastrous financial collapse of 2008 were working their way through the economy, and particularly were impacting on the finances of state governments in the USA.

The recession meant that states were suddenly desperately short of tax revenues, and were unable to meet the financial demands of state higher education systems. For instance, California’s community college system, the nation’s largest, suffered about $809 million in state funding cuts between 2008-2012, resulting in a shortfall of 500,000 places in its campus-based colleges. Free MOOCs were seen as manna from heaven by the state governor, Jerry Brown.

One consequence of rapid cuts to government funding was a sharp spike in tuition fees, bringing the real cost of higher education sharply into focus. Tuition fees in the USA have increased by 7% per annum over the last 10 years, compared with an inflation rate of 4% per annum. Here at last was a possible way to rein in the high cost of higher education.

Now though the economy in the USA is picking up and revenues are flowing back into state coffers, and so the pressure for more radical solutions to the cost of higher education is beginning to ease. It will be interesting to see if MOOC mania continues as the economy grows, although the search for more cost-effective approaches to higher education is not going to disappear.

Don’t panic!

These are all very powerful drivers of MOOC mania, which makes it all the more important to try to be clear and cool headed about the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs. The real test is whether MOOCs can help develop the knowledge and skills that learners need in a knowledge-based society. The answer of course is yes and no.

As a low-cost supplement to formal education, they can be quite valuable, but not as a complete replacement. They can at present teach conceptual learning, comprehension and in a narrow range of activities, application of knowledge. They can be useful for building communities of practice, where already well educated people or people with a deep, shared passion for a topic can learn from one another, another form of continuing education.

However, certainly to date, MOOCs have not been able to demonstrate that they can lead to transformative learning, deep intellectual understanding, evaluation of complex alternatives, and evidence-based decision-making, and without greater emphasis on expert-based learner support and more qualitative forms of assessment, they probably never will, at least without substantial increases in their costs.

At the end of the day, there is a choice between throwing more resources into MOOCs and hoping that some of their fundamental flaws can be overcome without too dramatic an increase in costs, or whether we would be better investing in other forms of online learning and educational technology that could lead to more cost-effective learning outcomes. I know where I would put my money, and it’s not into MOOCs.

Over to you

This will be my last contribution to the discussion of MOOCs for my book, so let’s have it!

1. Do you agree with the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs that I have laid out? What would you add or remove or change?

2. What do you think of the drivers of MOOC mania? Are these accurate? Are there other, more important drivers of MOOC mania?

3. Do you even agree that there is a mania about MOOCs, or is their rapid expansion all perfectly understandable?

References

Bates, T. (2012) What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs, Online learning and distance education resources, August 5

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

Daniel, J. (2012). Making sense of MOOCs: Musings in a maze of myth, paradox and possibility.Journal of Interactive Media in Education, Vol. 3

Hill, P. (2012) Four Barriers that MOOCs must overcome to build a sustainable model, e-Literate, July 24

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

Tapscott, D. (undated) The transformation of education dontapscott.com

Watters, A. (2013) MOOC Mania: Debunking the hype around massive, open online courses The Digital Shift, 18 April

A New Zealand analysis of MOOCs

Listen with webReader

NZ MOOCs 2

Shrivastava, A. and Guiney, P. (2014) Technological Development and Tertiary Education Delivery Models: The Arrival of MOOCs  Wellington NZ: Tertiary Education Commission/Te Amorangi Mātauranga Matua

Why this paper?

Another report for the record on MOOCs, this time from the New Zealand Tertiary Education Commission. The reasoning behind this report:

The paper focuses on MOOCs [rather than doing a general overview of emerging technologies] because of their potential to disrupt tertiary education and the significant opportunities, challenges and risks that they present. MOOCs are also the sole focus of this paper because of their scale and the involvement of the elite United States universities.

What’s in the paper?

The paper provides a fairly standard, balanced analysis of developments in MOOCs, first by describing the different MOOC delivery models, their business models and the drivers behind MOOCs, then by following up with a broad discussion of the possible implications of MOOCs for New Zealand, such as unbundling of services, possible economies of scale, globalization of tertiary (higher) education, adaptability to learners’ and employers’ needs, and the possible impact on New Zealand’s tertiary education workforce.

There is also a good summary of MOOCs being offered by New Zealand institutions.

At the end of the paper some interesting questions for further discussion are raised:

  • What will tertiary education delivery look like in 2030?

  • What kinds of opportunities and challenges do technological developments, including MOOCs, present to the current policy, regulatory and operational arrangements for tertiary teaching and learning in New Zealand?

  • How can New Zealand make the most of the opportunities and manage any associated risks and challenges?

  • Do MOOCs undermine the central value of higher education, or are they just a helpful ‘updating’ that reflects its new mass nature?

  • Where do MOOCs fit within the New Zealand education and qualifications systems?

  • Who values the knowledge and skills gained from a MOOC programme and why?

  • Can economies of scale be achieved through MOOCs without loss of quality?

  • Can MOOCs lead to better learning outcomes at the same or less cost than traditional classroom-based teaching? If so, how might the Government go about funding institutions that want to deliver MOOCs to a mix of domestic and international learners?

  • What kinds of MOOC accreditation models might make sense in the context of New Zealand’s quality-assurance system?

Answers on a postcard, please, to the NZ Tertiary Education Commission.

Comment

Am I alone in wondering what has happened to for-credit online education in government thinking about the future? It is as if 20 years of development of undergraduate and graduate online courses and programs never existed. Surely a critical question for institutions and government planners is:

  • what are the relative advantages and disadvantages of MOOCs over other forms of online learning? What can MOOCs learn from our prior experience with credit-based online learning?

There are several reasons for considering this, but one of the most important is the huge investment many institutions, and, indirectly, governments. have already made in credit-based online learning.

By and large, online learning in publicly funded universities, both in New Zealand and in Canada, has been very successful in terms of both increasing access and in student learning. It is also important to be clear about the differences and some of the similarities between credit-based online learning and MOOCs.

Some of the implications laid out in this paper, such as possibilities of consortia and institutional collaboration, apply just as much to credit-based online learning as to MOOCs, and many of the negative criticisms of MOOCs, such as difficulties of assessment and lack of learner support, disappear when applied to credit-based online learning.

Please, policy-makers, realise that MOOCs are not your only option for innovation through online learning. There are more established and well tested solutions already available.