December 20, 2014

Is there a Canadian market for American online programs?

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© Wikipedia, 2014

Image: © Wikipedia, 2014

Identifying the market

I got a phone call last week from an international consultancy company contracted on behalf of a major U.S. state university, wanting to know if I thought there was a Canadian market for U.S. online degrees. Since I didn’t get paid for my advice, I’m willing to share it with anyone who’s interested. (I do find it annoying that universities will pay large sums to general business consultants such as Price Waterhouse, KPMG, Accenture, etc., who then expect professionals in the field to do their work for them for free.)

So I will share with you the short answer I gave to the consultants, then the long one which only you have access to!

The short answer is yes, but only in niche markets. This means doing careful market research (not just ringing up a few experts), developing a strong business plan, keeping tuition fees relatively low compared with those at the top end of the market in the USA, and being nimble, in that the market will not last long if they are successful, because Canadian institutions will eventually try to take that market back.

Now for the long answer.

Why Canada is not an easy market for foreign online programs

I don’t have any figures, but there are certainly some Canadian students already taking online degrees from U.S. institutions (if you are one of them, I’d be interested in your experience.) Why would they do that, you might ask? Well,

  • if they want to get a job in the USA or work for an American company in Canada
  • if there is no Canadian university offering the program either face-to-face locally or online
  • because they think a big name U.S. university will do a better job than their local Canadian universities.

I’m not saying they are right to think that, but the whole question of comparative quality in post-secondary educations, either in Canada or the USA, is so fraught and subjective that potential students still have a very hard job making those kinds of decisions.

However, for that very reason, better the devil you know. In general, I would argue that most potential students in Canada will look to one of their local universities as their first choice, for several reasons:

  • Cost. Tuition fees are generally lower in Canada in absolute terms, but also Canadians may be eligible for grants and scholarships for study, which probably will not apply to online programs offered by a program from the USA (although again there are exceptions.)
  • Quality. Nearly all Canadian universities are publicly funded and accredited by the provincial government. There are of course differences in status, but the system is simple enough for most Canadians to be aware of these differences, and the variation between institutions in Canada is nowhere near as great as in the much larger and much more diverse US higher education system. In particular, distance and online education in the USA has been tarnished much more than in Canada by private, for profit diploma mills, making many Canadians suspicious then of any online programs offered from the USA
  • Access. In general, most Canadians can get access to the programs they need from one or more of their local universities. 51% of Canadians go on from high school to university, and 60% to some form of publicly-funded post-secondary education. There are already roughly one million course enrollments a year in online courses from Canadian post-secondary institutions, or roughly about 20-25 per cent of all course enrollments

So the Canadian market for post-secondary education in general is what marketers call ‘mature’ and even online learning, while not mature, is certainly not in its infancy in Canada. Many Canadian universities already offer a range of online programs, both for credit and for non-credit.

For instance, there are several online/distance MBAs (Athabasca University, Queen’s/Cornell, Laurentian, for instance) and UBC has been running several very successful online masters programs in education, creative writing and health sciences. This is a market where institutions can more than cover their costs within the current range of government-regulated tuition fees; indeed UBC has been able to add new research faculty as a result of some their online masters programs.

The Canadian Virtual University (CVU), which is a consortium of 11 universities from across Canada, lists over 2,000 online courses from its members, including a total of 57 online masters programs. There are 16 online masters programs in Ontario, Canada’s largest province (with 20 universities). Of the online masters currently available from Ontario institutions, one third are in education, one third in business or leadership, and one third in health or social work (see Ontario Online Learning Portal for Students). There are a few other universities in Canada that are not members of the CVU or in Ontario that also offer online programs, and the number grows each year. Thus there is already a significant Canadian university (and college) ‘presence’ in the online learning area.

Furthermore once a U.S. program starts attracting large numbers of Canadian students, this is likely to draw a response from the Canadian institutions. This happened in British Columbia in the 1990s, when a large number of teachers started taking distance education masters’ programs from Washington State institutions such as Gonzaga University, because there was little available in British Columbia. It took a few years but the B.C. institutions eventually responded and the number of teachers taking out of province online programs is now very much reduced.

Lastly there are more subtle cultural barriers. Canada is not so different from the USA as Canadians like to believe, but there are differences, and they are important. Our laws and government regulations for instance are different. We have different iconic references, different national symbols, a different racial mix. This means content does not always transfer as seamlessly as you would think for countries sharing a similar language and continent. This is not an insurmountable obstacle, but it does require a certain sensitivity to ‘Canadian-ness’ that is not always there in the USA. However, it is probably too costly to adapt existing materials for a specifically Canadian market.

So there are several reasons why some caution would be needed in marketing online programs from the USA for a Canadian market (or anywhere else, such as the U.K. or Australia).

Why there is still a market for foreign online programs in Canada

But Canadian universities should not be complacent. Canadian institutions have been slower than their counterparts in the USA in entering the online professional masters’ market. There are many gaps in the availability of post-graduate online programs in Canada, especially in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) areas.

For instance, in Ontario there are no online masters’ programs in food and agriculture, humanities (except Design from OCAD), social sciences, math, science, law or engineering. The situation would be similar or worse in the other provinces. In particular, despite the CVA, which covers only 11 of the 80 or so universities in Canada, there is no national portal for Canadian online courses, so potential students have a hard time looking for online programs offered out of province.

Secondly, should Harvard, Stanford or MIT start offering for-credit online programs, there would certainly be a large take-up in Canada of such programs. For the still prestigious, Tier 1 research state universities, such as the University of California, Arizona State University or Penn State, brand recognition in Canada would be less compelling if there are suitable Canadian alternatives, although for graduate programs, many Canadian students might still be interested.

Lastly, good marketing is likely to attract potential students in Canada who may well not be aware that similar programs are already available in Canada where they do exist. Even as a so-called expert in Canadian online learning, I was unaware of most of the programs listed in the CVA and Contact North portals. Canadian universities are still remarkably provincially focused when it comes to marketing online programming. Which brings me to my next point.

Why don’t Canadian institutions market online programs in the USA?

Well, some do, but not many, and there are good reasons for this.

First the U.S. accreditation system is byzantine and bizarre, and totally ill-adapted to the move to online, distance education, but without accreditation from one of the regional accreditation agencies in the U.S., any Canadian online program would not be recognized for financial assistance, credit transfer or by many employers. Indeed (although the federal regulations are currently under discussion) it may be illegal to offer programs to students within a state without approval from that state (and to get approval you may need a ‘physical presence.’) Despite the very large cost in getting regional accreditation, some specialist Canadian institutions, such as Athabasca University, have done so. I’d be interested to know though if they feel it was worth it, in terms of the numbers of U.S. students it has attracted. (Yes, you are correct: the U.S.A and Canada are partners in a free trade association called NAFTA, but it doesn’t apply to education – or forestry, for that matter.)

Second, the reverse is true regarding brand recognition and local preferences. Many U.S. citizens don’t even know where Canada is, let alone know whether the University of Waterloo is a bona fide institution and not a diploma mill. (I once shared an airport shuttle bus in Los Angeles with two American businessmen complaining they needed a passport to go to Toronto. ‘Anyone would think it was in another country,’ one said. I’m not making it up, and for British Columbian’s it may well be.)

So Canada, and Canadian institutions, do not have a strong enough brand image for most Americans, although some institutions, such as the University of Windsor, have done an excellent job in building partnership with institutions just across the border in Michigan and Detroit – but not, so far, in online learning.

Why these are the wrong questions

The real question should be (for both Canadian and U.S. online program developers): Is there an international market for online professional masters’ programs, to which the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’

It really doesn’t matter what country a student is in. If the program being offered meets a need, and the student can afford it, then they will take it, whether it comes from the USA, Canada, Australia, Spain, India or Brazil. Brand recognition helps. Canadian public institutions produce high quality, government accredited online programs. There is no distinction in the degree transcripts whether the program is offered at a distance or on campus. With its rather monolithic public higher education system, it would have an advantage if it could only market a Canadian rather than a local or provincial brand (but then it has the same problem in attracting international students to on-campus programs).

U.S. states trying to regulate whether students can take a program from out of state are like King Canute trying to stop the tide from coming in. All you can do is say ‘Caveat Emptor’ – buyer beware.

One way round the ‘not invented here’ attitude to out of state or out of country programs though is to develop a partnership with local institutions of a similar ‘status’ level. The University of British Columbia developed a very successful partnership with Tec de Monterrey in Mexico for a graduate program in educational technology. UBC developed most of the content, but the program was available in Spanish from Tec de Monterrey and in English from UBC. UBC’s offering of the program drew almost 30 per cent of its enrollments initially from English-speaking students from other countries all round the world. Similarly, Tec de Monterrey marketed its program in South America as well as in Mexico. Queen’s University in Canada has partnered with Cornell University in the USA to market a joint online MBA. These partnerships help to get round the accreditation issues.

Admission of international students to an online program can be more of a problem, as can issues of security in terms of exams and assessment, but these are not insuperable problems. If the institution already has an admission policy for on-campus international students this should apply just as well to online students from another country. Local proctoring (again using a partner institution) can help with examinations, but even better is to use authentic assessments where students have to apply their knowledge locally or within their own work or social context. This form of assessment is ideal for professional masters ‘ programs.

Furthermore, it helps when initially planning an online program to take into consideration that there is probably an international market (indeed, this helps with marketing the program even locally). This means choosing content carefully so it can work in a wide variety of international contexts, and to take advantage of the different perspectives from the international students.

Lastly, when developing a business model, the inclusion of international students can make the difference between loss and profit, because in well-designed online programs, the marginal cost of each additional student should more than cover the delivery costs. UBC found it did not need to charge a premium tuition fee for international students, because the business model depended on getting enough enrollments at the government-regulated tuition fee (for domestic students) to break even. The international students were an important contributor to breaking even without having to charge them a premium price. So pricing policy is also an important factor.

In conclusion

Yes, there is a market for international students in online programs, and there will be a market in Canada for specific professional masters offered by well-recognised and legitimate U.S. universities, provided they fill a gap not currently being met by Canadian institutions – and at the moment there are many such gaps.

However, it may be a mistake to focus on marketing to specific countries. Institutions will (even in Canada) respond relatively quickly to what they may feel as foreign incursions into their market. The world market (especially for programs in the English language) is large enough to attract more than enough high quality students to credit-based programs – just look at the response to MOOCs, which don’t offer formal qualifications. The trick is good marketing, making sure the materials take into consideration an international market and are not focused on specifically local or national issues, and having a good business plan. And partnership with foreign institutions would be a wise move. So while not easy, it is feasible, but if the reason is solely to make money, then it will, ironically, be a harder sell. Students will pick up on that remarkably quickly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another e-learning platform from Nigeria

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Fora.co

Adepoju, P. (2014) Nigeria is ready for e-learning – Fora.co Humanipo, January 28

I wrote about tutor.ng in a previous post. Fora.co is another e-learning platform, working with ‘Africa’s leading Universities, organizations and governments to provide young Africans with affordable access to the best educational content online, offline and on mobile‘. It offers over 500 courses or course packs, consisting of:

pre-built bundles of relevant digital learning resources that can be used as teaching or training aids in the classroom. (Minimum 6 hours of professor lectures) 
+ Lab Exercises 
+ Textbooks & required readings 
+ Test banks (Minimum 100 questions) 
+ Presentation Slide templates for lectures

Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, chief executive officer at Fora.co, believes that in Nigeria, the technology is not the main barrier. The problem is lack of local content:

We are still light years behind others countries. Nigerian e-learning content is often badly designed and instructional design for online courses still seems foreign to our e-learning content landscape. This is one of the reasons we have had to focus on selling foreign courses because the local courses we saw were quite simply not up to snuff.

For students with difficult or costly access to the Internet, Fora provides learners with a flash drive that ‘synchronizes data from offline interactions and downloads new content from Fora.co to the flashdrive whenever internet access becomes available‘.

Flora markets both directly to institutions and also to individual students. Fora charges a fee per student that depends on the size of the institution and the kind of content bundle required. The lowest priced content bundle is $59.99/student (~N10,000/student).

However, at the moment its web site does not list the courses, the institutions that provide the materials, or the institutions that Fora is working with. This will come shortly; the materials however are properly sourced with the permission of each of the institutions whose materials are used.

Comment

Again, it will be interesting to see how this company develops, and whether the business model is successful. It is likely to work best with small, private institutions who can charge a premium fee thus generating a profit.

A major test will be if any African public universities partner, and whether courses will eventually be accredited in Nigeria.

Nevertheless I am sure we will see more attempts like this around Africa to build viable e-learning or online systems through the private sector.

Footnote

After I initially posted this, I discovered that this project had a Canadian origin, originally conceived at the University of Waterloo’s Velo City Garage and with connections with the MaRS Tech project: click here for much more information about the Fora operation. See also Iyinoluwa Aboyeji’s comments to this post below.

Sir John Daniel’s book review of ‘Beyond the MOOC Hype’ by Jeffrey Young

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Young's book on MOOCs

Young, J. (2013) Beyond the MOOC Hype: A Guide to Higher Education’s High-Tech Disruption Washington DC : Chronicle of Higher Education, 92 pp (available through Amazon for about $5)

Introduction

Sir John Daniel has kindly offered his review of this book for publication in my blog.

Sir John Daniel’s review

In September 2012, as a visiting fellow at the Korea National Open University, I wrote an essay on MOOCs entitled Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility. At that moment the phenomenon of xMOOCs was far too new to have generated any scholarly research and there was little academic literature on cMOOCs either, although they had been going since 2008. I therefore had to base my essay on the copious coverage of MOOCs by journalists and bloggers. MOOCs had captured the attention of the news media in a remarkable way, so this reporting was plentiful.

I found one of the best commentators on MOOCs to be Jeffrey Young, who has covered the MOOCs story for the US Chronicle of Higher Education from its beginnings. The thoroughness of his work impressed me. He took MOOCs himself as a learner and also performed a particularly useful service for those trying to make sense of the business model of MOOCs by using freedom-of-information rights to obtain a copy of the standard contract between the MOOCs-platform company Coursera and its university partners.

Young has now distilled his deep knowledge of MOOCs into an eBook titled: Beyond the MOOC Hype: A Guide to Higher Education’s High-Tech Disruption. It is an excellent read, where he endears himself to non-American readers by being aware of developments outside his own country, a rare quality among US education journalists! He took a Manitoba cMOOC as a learner and visited the Indira Gandhi National Open University in Delhi to find out more about open universities.

The seven chapters of the book address all the key issues. At the beginning, calling MOOCs ‘Education’s Jetpack Moment’, he draws an analogy with science fiction predictions that never came true in order to ask whether MOOCs really will stimulate the revolution in higher education forecast by enthusiasts. His concluding remarks carry the title ‘A Fight for the Future of Higher Education’.

He looks at both sides of that fight, his goal being neither to promote free online education, nor to present a critical diatribe, adding wisely that ‘the future is unknown and how things turn out will depend on college leaders, professors and anyone who might one day take a free online course’. For Young, ‘MOOCs matter, whether they work or not, because they have put the future of college into the national spotlight’.

He starts with the basic question ‘what is a MOOC’ and finds that MOOCs take lessons from a fusion of trends that add up to more than the sum of their parts. In chapter 2 he examines the history of MOOCs and tries to put them in the context of the long history of distance education. This leads him to the toughest question: ‘if MOOCs are free to students, who will pay for them?’ There is no assurance that any of the moneymaking schemes proposed for MOOCs will work. The later chapters look at how MOOCs might change classroom teaching, the claim that MOOCs threaten the long-term health of higher education, and whether MOOCs are an effective way to teach.

The book is enlivened by stories from the coalface about teaching and studying MOOCs and about his own experience as a learner, notably through an engaging account of the MOOC he took on song writing, which ‘stirred a feeling of discovery I haven’t felt since my days as an undergraduate’.

In the chapter on whether MOOCs work, he recalls the well-known fact that 80% of Coursera’s students already have a degree of some kind. MOOCs have failed to achieve the lofty objective articulated by their pioneers, which was to bring education to those who never had access before, whether in rich countries or poor. Young notes the growing sense that the US higher education system is broken, with the running costs of colleges – and therefore the levels of tuition fees – growing faster than the incomes of students wanting to go to college. MOOCs are not addressing that problem – at least not yet.

Central to this issue is the question of credit. Young points out that the few institutions offering credit for their own MOOCs have had only a handful of takers, though he notes that these offers had little publicity. Yet he reports that a substantial minority of faculty teaching MOOCs, notably in engineering, maths, science and technology, felt that their students deserved credit. Meanwhile other bodies, such as the American Council on Education, are recommending credit for certain MOOCs.

Some colleges, while not giving credit for MOOCs, will let students graduate in three years instead of four if they earn enough MOOC certificates. In this respect MOOCs can give pupils leaving secondary school the sort of advanced standing that they can earn by taking Advanced Placement tests or the International Baccalaureate, thereby achieving a 25% reduction in the overall cost of college. Other institutions are taking the obvious step of introducing MOOC like qualities – notably scale – to regular, credit-bearing online programmes so that they can reduce fees substantially.

In his summary of the fight for the future of higher education Young addresses three questions: should colleges be run like businesses; who should provide higher education; and how can colleges bring down costs? Noting that the faculty-centred nature of US higher education is responsible for its quality and dynamism as well as its accelerating costs, he makes the telling point that the opening of a new college campus is now extremely rare. This alone suggests that this business model has run its course, at least in the US. On the other hand, the entry costs to online teaching are low: ‘like the difference between buying a food truck versus building a nationwide chain of restaurants’.

This means that new players, not only institutions but also partnerships of faculty members and professionals, can join the higher education enterprise. Presently a key barrier facing them is the monopoly that colleges have on selling credits and degrees. However, the MOOCs explosion is already accelerating the break-up of this monopoly.

By stimulating policy makers to reflect more deeply on the cost structures of higher education, MOOCs have revealed the perverse nature of much recent institutional spending. Investing in technology without revising the classroom-teaching model has raised costs, not lowered them. Furthermore, colleges have tended to add amenities like fancier dorms or climbing walls, instead of improving their educational quality. Online programmes that highlight the quality and effectiveness of their teaching/learning systems rather than the grandeur of their physical plant could gain an increasing edge. Residential colleges will not go away but some will struggle to respond to the challenge of online learning that MOOCs have amplified.

Young completed his book in mid-2013. The MOOCs space is dynamic and there have been significant developments, both in the US and elsewhere, since that time. Nevertheless, his thoughtful commentary on the frenzied phenomenon of MOOCs remains highly relevant to decision makers grappling with its implications for their institutions.

 

The cost of being a student in Canada – and where to find online courses

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The Cost of Being a Student in Canada

vouchercloud is a Canadian discount coupon website and they have just launched a selection of student specific coupons. They have produced the above infographic focusing on the cost of being a student in Canada. (Note the date: fees change over time).

My advice for Canadian students: shop around for online programs from established and recognized Canadian universities and colleges, even if they are out of province. For instance, some high quality professional online masters programs can be found at less than these prices, although finding fully online undergraduate programs at a lower cost will be more difficult.

Athabasca University, in Alberta, and Thompson Rivers University’s Open Learning in British Columbia offer both undergraduate and graduate programs online. Royal Roads University in British Columbia offers mainly masters programs online, with a residential component. None of these universities requires you to be resident within their province.

For students in Ontario, try Contact North’s Ontario Online Learning Portal for Students

For students in Alberta, try: e-Campus Alberta

For students in British Columbia, try: CoursesBC (note: shows only courses, not programs)

For Manitoba, try: Campus Manitoba

Québec is a bit more complicated, but if you are francophone, try REFAD’s liste de cours à distance en français au Canada.

Other provinces are small enough that it’s not difficult to check with each institution. For instance, both Nova Scotia Community College and New Brunswick Community College have their own portals for online courses, but Nova Scotia’s universities (and there are quite a few) do not yet have a single portal.

However, not all institutions list their online and distance courses/programs on these portals (although most two-year colleges do), so you should also check with individual institutions, using ‘online courses’ or ‘distance education’ as search terms. In most cases, institutions in Canada charge the same fee for online as for campus courses/programs – but not always, so check.

Also check on the ability to transfer credits and qualifications across provinces, if you register for an ‘out-of-province’ course or program. Ontario can be particularly difficult about transferring in qualifications from other provinces – or even between institutions within Ontario. Alberta and British Columbia on the other hand have extensive credit transfer arrangements between their institutions.

Lastly, if you don’t want a full degree, look at the online programs being offered as certificates or diplomas from the Continuing Education or Extension departments of the individual institutions. These are more ‘open’ than the undergraduate and masters programs, although they are not always cheaper. Also, the University of British Columbia, the University of Alberta, and the University of Toronto offer a small number of MOOCs (massive open online courses) for free, but these are not for credit.

If you are a student outside Canada, you are likely to be charged a great deal more for taking online programs that lead to degree qualifications than Canadian students, and may not be accepted – this will depend on your other qualifications. You will need to contact the Registrar at each institution. And do not ask me to recommend an individual university or college in Canada. If it’s a public university funded by the provincial government – and this covers most universities in Canada – it will be reputable.

Lastly, have I missed any province or territory’s online portal? If so, let me know.

Also, let me know your experience in trying to find online courses or programs in Canada.

Perhaps in time, there will be a one-stop shopping portal for all Canadian online courses from public universities and colleges, but it’s a federal system where provinces have complete autonomy regarding post-secondary education, so don’t hold your breath.

 

Examining the potential and reality of open educational resources: the 2013 COHERE conference

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Panel: Robert Clougherty; George Veletsianos; Johan Fridell; Diane Salter; Rory McGreal

Panel: Robert Clougherty; George Veletsianos; Johan Fridell; Diane Salter; Rory McGreal

COHERE (Collaboration for Online Higher Education and Research) runs one of my favourite annual conferences. It is relatively small (around 75), the participants are mainly leading practitioners in online learning, and the sessions are excellent, usually encompassing leading developments in online learning, research reports, and extensive discussion from people in the front line of online learning. (Click here for a report on the 2012 conference.)

This year, the conference, jointly sponsored by the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education (CSSHE), and held at Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Richmond campus in British Columbia, focused on ‘Open Resources, Open Courses: their Impact on Blended and Online Learning’.

The two main keynote speakers this year were Cable Green, the Director of the Creative Commons, and David Porter, the Director of BC Campus. Here is a summary of my closing remarks which aimed to review the conference (although I was able to attend only 25% of the parallel sessions – I can do any time, anywhere, but not yet two places at the same time).

To get copies of the slides of presenters, you will need to get a Dropbox invitation from Stacey Woods. I don’t have my own slides – just the notes below.

Creative Commons

This seemingly simple idea, of an ‘author’ creating a license enabling people to freely access and adapt copyright material, without charge or special permission, is one of the great ideas of the 21st century. This does not take away someone’s copyright but enables that copyright holder to give permission for different kinds of use of their material without charge or any bureaucracy. There is no real legal or technical barrier now to making educational material free. It does though require a particular mindset among both copyright holders – i.e. the creators of materials – and users – i.e. teachers and instructors who could use this material in their teaching. Thus the main challenge is one of cultural change.

The spectrum of Creative Commons licenses

The spectrum of Creative Commons licenses

Open textbooks

In some ways, open textbooks are a no brainer. There’s probably no greater racket than the school and college textbook industry (other than the research journal industry.) Often these textbooks are not ‘original’ work, in the sense of new knowledge, but carefully written and well illustrated summaries of current thinking in the different subject areas.

Students and governments, through grants and financial aid, pay billions of dollars each year on textbooks produced by people who are largely already employed in the public education sector (and who in any case are lucky to get 10% of any revenue generated). A student in Canada spends on average about $800 a year on textbooks, even more in the USA. In some subject areas, the cost is well over $1,000 a year per student.

Nothing seems more absurd to me than the sight of hundreds of students lining up for up to an hour every day for the first week of the semester at the UBC bookstore to buy their books. This is time lost studying. Cable Green pointed to research that shows that when first year math students have their textbooks from the first day, they do much better than students who often don’t get the key textbook until three weeks into the course. He also pointed to research from Florida Virtual Campus that indicates that many students (over 60%) simply do not buy all the required textbooks, for a variety of reasons, but the main one being cost. Indeed, students are often reluctant to take their books to campus in case they lose them (although he was referring to k-12 children here).

So why shouldn’t government pay the creators of textbooks directly, cut out the middleman (commercial publishers), save over 80% on the cost, and distribute the books to students (or anyone else) for free over the Internet, under a Creative Commons license? What’s not to like (unless you’re a publisher)? In his presentation, Cable Green came up with a great ‘vision’ for open textbooks: 100% of students have 100% free, digital access to all materials on day one.

So it was good to hear from David Porter that BC Campus is developing 40 open textbooks for first and second year university courses, and another 20 for two year college vocational and technical courses. BC is also collaborating with Alberta in Canada, and Washington State and Oregon, in the USA, to avoid duplication and to increase sharing of open textbooks. Explore the BC Campus web site: at the time of writing this post there are already seven open textbooks available, and perhaps more significantly, faculty from 20 of the 24 post-secondary institutions in B.C. are participating in the creation of open textbooks. Someone asked the question: what is Ontario (Canada’s largest province) doing about open textbooks? The answer to date is: nothing.

However, there were some cautionary concerns from some of the participants about open textbooks:

  • Elizabeth Murphy, from Memorial University, questioned the whole idea of textbooks, whether open or not. She saw textbooks as a relic of 19th century industrialism, a form of mass broadcasting. In the 21st century, students should be finding, accessing and collecting digital materials over the Internet. Textbooks are merely packaged learning, with the authors doing the work for students. Nevertheless, it has to be recognized that textbooks are still the basic currency for most forms of education, and while this remains the case, open textbooks are a much better alternative for students
  • others (including myself) questioned the likely impact of ‘open’ publishing on creating original works that are not likely to get subsidized by government because they are either too specialized, or are not yet part of a standard curriculum for the subject; in other words would it impact on the diversity of publishing? What is the incentive for someone now to publish a unique work, if there is no commercial reward for the effort (especially if you believe that open publishing will eventually wipe out commercial publishing, as I do)? Writing an original, single authored book remains hard work, however it is published.
  • although there is now a range of  ‘open’ publishing services, there are still costs for an author to create original work. Who will pay, for instance, for specialized graphics, for editing or for review? How can these costs be recovered? In particular, in what format (pdf, html, Word, ePub, xml, a wiki) should original work be created so that it can become interactive, easily re-purposed, and multimedia? Much more work still needs to be done to support the open publishing of original work in book format, at least – or is the book itself a relic of another time? If so, what does that mean for how knowledge is created, disseminated and preserved? (Answers on a – digital – postcard, please).

Although these are all important concerns, they seem to me to be manageable. Just getting a proportion of the main textbooks available to students for free is a major step forward.

Openstax open textbooks

Openstax open textbooks

Getting faculty to use OERs

Increasingly faculty are creating open educational resources, or making resources freely available for others to use under a Creative Commons license. There are increasing numbers of depositories or portals where faculty can access open educational resources. Faculty have a number of choices:

  • create your own digital resources, and make them available to others (there are plenty of guides on how to do this.)
  • take OERs selectively from elsewhere, and incorporate or adapt them into your own teaching
  • take a whole course from elsewhere (e.g. a MOOC) and provide learner support and teaching around those materials (such as San Jose State University is doing, or as in the Carnegie-Mellon Open Learning Initiative.)

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the take-up of OERs by instructors is still minimal. Diane Salter of Kwantlen Polytechnic University led a discussion on how best to get faculty to incorporate OERs into their teaching. Many of the suggestions made will be familiar to anyone concerned with change management in higher education: there was the discussion of the need for the move to be both top-down and bottom up; I argued the importance of these kinds of decision being made at a program level; faculty development and workshops are essential.

However, Keith Hampson raised a much more important barrier and that is how university faculty see themselves. They don’t see themselves as ‘just’ teachers, but creators and disseminators of new or original knowledge. Therefore their teaching needs to have their own stamp on it, which makes them reluctant to openly incorporate or ‘copy’ other people’s work. We can argue that this is absurd – we all stand on the shoulders of giants – but it’s the self-perception that’s important, and for research professors, there is a grain of truth in the argument. It makes sense for them to focus their teaching on their own research. But then how many Richard Feynmans are there out there? The problem is that OERs can easily be associated with ‘packaged’, reproductive knowledge, and not original work, changing faculty from ‘artists’ to ‘artisans’.

One practical step that could increase greater adoption of OERs would be some open course design templates into which OERs could be dropped, with examples, and places for instructors to add their own resources. These design templates could range from more didactic teaching somewhat similar to an open LMS (some of which exist already), to more open or more flexible designs where students find, analyse and apply open resources within an overall teaching framework. I would hope such templates would include spaces for student activity, and multimedia resources. This would take something like CoursePacker to the next level.

The problem remains though that even when faculty adopt OERs, they are often inside a closed teaching environment, such as an LMS. What the OERu is doing is opening up this whole process so that students can openly access whole programs and receive full qualifications from the participating institutions. In fact, the OERu was launched yesterday at Thompson Rivers University, in Kamloops, British Columbia (more on this in another post).

The panel responding to David Porter’s presentation also raised several interesting points. While open education activities were reported from both Memorial University and the University of Ottawa, they tended to be outside actual course design, focused on library initiatives or open publishing in journals. Incidentally it seems bizarre to me that institutions are paying up to $3,000 an article for publishers to make the article open access within a journal, when the research has been publicly funded (what David Porter described as ‘openwashing’).

Ron Owston reported on the dead hand Access Copyright has had on using secondary sources for teaching, having taken York University to court over its interpretation of fair dealing. This is a must win case for Canadian universities and if York is successful it should sue Access Copyright for wasting the court’s time and the university’s resources after an earlier clear decision by Canada’s Supreme Court.

Ron also raised the question of the poor quality of much of the OERs available a the moment – reams of text with no interaction, course design, or media other than text, often in PDFs that cannot easily be changed or adapted. If OERs are to be taken up, they will need to be better designed.

Research and development on MOOCs

Ah, MOOCs. Funny how these came up. Well, there were some interesting presentations on this topic.

WideWorld Ed

WideWorld Ed is a new Canadian, online open education platform, the main driving force behind which is Jenny Heyman, who gave an interesting presentation at the conference (declaration of interest: I’m on the Academic Advisory Board). Its first MOOC is a six week course: Online Instruction for Open Educators, which opened on October 14. The instructors include some famous names: Terry Anderson, Athabasca University; Dave Cormier, University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI); Bonnie Stewart, UPEI; Jenni Hayman, Wide World Ed; and Sean Gallagher, Wide World Ed. Interestingly, sponsorship for the course comes from Desire2Learn.

WideWorld Ed’s mission is to deliver well-designed and effective online courses and open education resources to diverse learners around the world. In particular it hopes to attract course providers from Canadian institutions and organizations, a Canadian edX.  In particular, I can see a real market for NGOs, charitable institutions wishing to get better outreach for their services, and public institutions seeking wider audiences.This is a brave start-up effort, and I hope it gets the support it deserves from Canadian universities and colleges, venture capitalists and other sponsors. Now if we just had a Federal Department of Education to put some money behind it…..

WideWorldEd

Athabasca University’s research on MOOCs

Marti Cleveland-Innes gave a presentation on Athabasca University’s research program examining MOOCs, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This is just starting and the aim is to address the research gap by evaluating MOOCs, and how they impact teaching, learning, and education in general. There has been an rfp for proposals administered by Athabasca University, and the successful applicants will be presenting their proposals at a forthcoming conference at the University of Texas Arlington December 5-6

Research into students’ experience of MOOCs

George Veletsianos, who recently moved from the University of Texas at Austin to Royal Roads University, BC, and who is a leading researcher on emerging educational technologies, has also been conducting research on MOOCs, from the learners’ perspectives. George’s take on MOOCs is interesting. He sees the MOOC phenomenon as a result of chronic failures in the post-secondary education system (I’m not sure if he was talking generally, or just the USA). Among a range of failures he cites the lack of impact of educational technology research on course design, and the failure of educational technologists to make any impact on practice (ah, well, there’s a lifetime’s work down the toilet). It’s hard to disagree with him, though, given his results from interviewing MOOC students: that MOOCs suffer from a lack of course design, that instructor’s presence during the course (beyond a recorded lecture) is important, etc., results that to be honest are highly predictable from the research that was done before MOOCs were launched.

But is that the fault of educational technologists, or computer science professors who blindly failed to do any literature research into online learning or how students learn, or even talk to educators before launching their products? Talk about arrogance and ignorance combined, especially given Keith Hampson’s comment that the Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative, based on cognitive science research and best instructional design practices, generally leads to a minimum of 25% improvement in student performance when colleges follow their approach (results also found by Carol Twigg’s course redesign studies.) To re-quote G.K. Chesterton, it’s not that research into educational technologies has been applied and failed – it’s never been applied by most instructors. That’s because we don’t train them in teaching, not because we don’t disseminate the results.

It’s great that both Athabasca and George are doing research on MOOCs. This is sorely needed. However, they are applying evidence-based research and rational analysis to a phenomenon that is political, emotional and largely irrational. For a true understanding of the MOOC phenomenon, we probably need a socio-cultural analysis, so their research could easily end the way that George has portrayed previous research into educational technology: ignored, though it is highly relevant.

Is open education becoming a tool of the right?

So here’s my socio-cultural analysis, for what it’s worth.

The reason that MOOCs have received such media hype is because the USA in particular has been destroying its own public higher education system through budget cuts and an unwillingness to pay taxes. If elite universities can deliver MOOCs for free, why do we need crappy state universities? The risk is a sharply divided two tier system, with a relatively small number of elite universities catering to the rich, and the masses going to MOOC-delivered courses with state universities providing minimal and low cost learner support for such courses.

This would be both a social and economic disaster, because it would fail to produce learners with the high-level skills that are going to be needed for good jobs in the the coming years – unless you believe that automation will remove all paid jobs except for a tiny elite (is this the hidden agenda?).

It should be noted that even for credit-based online program, content accounts for less than 15% of the total cost over five years; the main costs required to ensure high quality outcomes and high rates of completion are spent on learner support, providing the learning that matters most. The kind of MOOCs being promoted by politicians and the media fail spectacularly to do this.

We do need to be careful that the open education movement is not used as a stick by those in the U.S. (and elsewhere) who are deliberately trying to undermine public education for ideological and commercial reasons. Open content, OERs and MOOCs do not automatically lead to open access to high quality credentials.

In the end, a well-funded public higher education system remains the best way to assure access to higher education for the majority of the population. Having said that, there is enormous scope for improvements within that system. Open education and its tools offer a most promising way to bring about some much needed improvements. That is my main take-away from this excellent conference.