April 24, 2014

Synergies between online learning, on-campus teaching and flexible learning

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Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

Kiczcales, G. (2014) Online to improve on-campus Digital Learning Blog, UBC, Vancouver BC, April 14.

UBC’s flexible learning strategy

Nearly two weeks ago, Eric Grimson, the Chancellor of MIT, and I spent a day at the University of British Columbia consulting on the university’s strategy for flexible learning. I’ve been somewhat constrained by a confidentiality agreement, as UBC’s flexible learning strategy is still at the development stage and has yet to be formally approved, but one of the Provost’s team responsible for developing its strategy, Gregor Kiczales, has an interesting blog that he describes as a conversation about digitization of the channel between educators and learners, and what that means for university education. 

The impact of online learning on the campus

In his most recent post, Gregor discusses ‘one of the most important themes they [Eric and I] both stressed: the main reason for a university like UBC to explore online learning is to improve the on-campus learning experience.’ Certainly it was one of the points I made, that a combination of online learning and campus teaching will offer benefits to many students, by increasing flexibility and also by enabling instructors to focus on what the campus experience does best. However, it is not in my view the main reason for online learning.

I was arguing for more analysis to be made of what the campus can offer that cannot be provided more conveniently or more effectively online, with the implication that much of what we currently do on campus would actually be better replaced by online learning. What I would challenge in particular is that discussion is best done face-to-face. My experience is that very high levels of academic discussion are equally possible online as in class.

This brings me back to my law of equal substitution, which basically states that almost all teaching and learning outcomes can be just as effectively accomplished on campus or online, given good course design, although there will always be exceptions. In general, though, what determines the appropriateness of either mode are non-pedagogical factors, such as comparative costs, the differing needs of different types of students, the training of instructors, and the resources available.

I certainly believe that for young students straight out of high school, the social, sporting and cultural aspects of a campus are very important. Again, though, I question whether there is sufficient focus on these aspects today, especially in commuter universities, where a majority of the students travel in for lectures then go home. If the campus experience is so important for learning, then universities such as UBC need to really change the first and second year experience, with a move away from very large, impersonal lectures to more small group learning and more direct contact with senior research faculty. In other words, the current model, which keeps classes small for post-graduate students and large for first and second year undergraduates, should be inverted.

UBC is attempting to break up the large lecture classes, but the the cost of doing this, and the willingness or otherwise of faculty to spend more time with undergraduate students, are real challenges. It may be more realistic to focus on related academic and cultural activities that lie outside of formal courses or programs, and on those things, such as hands-on access to equipment, that cannot be done online.

Horses for courses (or rather, different courses for different horses)

The other point that really needs to be made is that public institutions such as UBC now face a much more diverse student population, with very different needs. Thus UBC has both young residential and young commuting students, local, national and international students, pre-university, undergraduate, graduate and lifelong learners, students with different levels of English language ability, gregarious and shy learners, and on and on. Every one of these groups probably needs a different range of options regarding the campus experience and the delivery of learning.

Thus I would argue that UBC also needs to focus just as much on fully online learning, or distance education, as on blended learning, or on improving the campus, as important as that is. In particular the lifelong learning market is growing rapidly, and is increasingly important economically in a highly competitive knowledge-based economy. Furthermore, lifelong learners are able and willing to pay the direct costs of for instance professional masters programs or more specific short courses or modules leading to badges or certificates. Such lifelong learners have already been through the campus experience, already have the fundamental lab or studio skills from hands-on learning, and can therefore handle more indirect forms of teaching, such as simulations or remote labs. It is for such learners that online learning is particularly appropriate.

Yes, much more flexibility

Thus UBC is absolutely right to focus on providing learning flexibly, i.e. in a wide variety of ways, to meet the diverse needs of students. In the end, students should be able to choose from a variety of ways of studying, while meeting the same teaching and learning objectives. This will require various mixes of online and classroom teaching within the same course or program. The technology to some extent does allow this ‘personalized’ learning, but it also needs to be accompanied by a major re-thinking of course design and how students can access learning, within a realistic cost framework.

Doing it right

Lastly, I have to say that in my view, UBC is way ahead of most universities in considering the impact of technology, not just on the campus, but on the whole learning experience and in particular the likely impact of changing markets on the university. I admire the way it is addressing these challenges. Thus my one day at UBC after an eleven year absence was a particularly appropriate way to conclude my career as a consultant.

Hooray for Janet Napolitano and her views on online learning (and public HE in general)!

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Napolitano

Napolitano, J. (2014) A conversation with University of California President Janet Napolitano Sacramento CA: Public Policy Institute of California

Hiltzik, M. (2014) UC’s Napolitano throws cold water on the online education craze Los Angeles Times, March 26

The conversation

I never thought I would be a cheerleader for Janet Napolitano, formerly Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and a former governor of Arizona, but in her role as the relatively new President of the vast University of California System, she recently made some much needed comments about the hype around online learning in a ‘conversation’ at the Public Policy Institute of California two days ago (captured in a YouTube video).

The whole ‘conversation’ lasts about an hour, but her comments on online learning come 31 mins 10 secs into the interview and last only two minutes, with another brief comment at 48’15. However, the whole of her comments, about UC and the importance of publicly funded higher education, are well worth listening to by anyone interested in the future of public higher education.

What she said about online learning

She did not (contrary a possible reading of Hiltzik’s headline in the LA Times) pour cold water on online learning. What she said was as follows:

  • it is one tool in the toolbox
  • it’s not easy to do well
  • students need regular interaction online with other students and with instructors
  • so it’s not going to save buckets of money
  • it’s better for students in upper level programs
  • it could help in sharing courses across campuses and in assisting transfers (between community colleges, state universities and UC).

Why what she said is important

There are probably many of you reading this article who like me, would agree with all the points she made about online learning. But these comments need to be seen in the following context:

What she is doing is bringing online learning down to the level of sensible policy – not a silver bullet for all HE’s ills, but one, important, tool in the box. This allows policy makers to focus on the true value of online learning, and also protects it from disappearing off the radar when the next fad hits the USA, or when disillusionment sets in around MOOCs.

What she also said about public higher education

You probably know the feeling of going into a bookstore to look for just one book, then another book catches your eye and keeps you riveted. That’s what happened to me with this video. My intent was to skip through the video until I got to the bit on online learning (not knowing when it would come up). But she held me with her thoughts right from the beginning in two related areas: the value of a strong public higher education system; and the enormous importance of the University of California system, for the USA as a whole. I’ll start with a few points about the UC system (see  New developments in online learning across the University of California system – and the implications for us all for more details)

The UC system

  • the state of California is the eighth largest economy in the world
  • the UC system has 10 campuses with nearly 250,000 students
  • UC’s total operating budget is $28 billion a year
  • 46% of UC’s new entrants are first generation university students, and almost half come from homes where English is not the first language
  • 50% of UC’s students pay no tuition at all, because of scholarships, grants, and a reinvestment of 30% of paid tuition fees into funding poorer students. Students from families earning less than $80,000 pay no tuition
  • 30% of each annual intake transfer in from California’s two year community colleges
  • 70-75% of all UC undergraduates complete within four years (the highest percentage among public universities in the USA)

The value of a public higher education system and UC in particular

I can’t really do justice to her eloquence on this subject, but the main points are

  • UC is an essential component of California’s knowledge-based economy: thousands of top-quality graduates entering the work force each year. In terms of sheer numbers, UC is a critical economic generator for the future in California
  • UC is a powerful engine that drives social mobility (see above).

The need for a public debate on the funding of HE in California

Despite the massive size of the state system, the universities and colleges are turning away qualified high school graduates because all the places are full (the two year college system in particular is hugely oversubscribed in terms of places). There has been continuous and systematic reductions in the state budget for higher education over the last six years, due to tax cutting and a major drop in other sources of state funding. The affordability of HE is a key concern of Californian voters, and a key priority of UC is to keep tuition as low and as predictable as possible. However, this has to be balanced in terms of providing the education that California will need if it is to maintain its position as an economic powerhouse.

Napolitano was cautious about  leading a campaign for a debate or a new state-wide agenda on public higher education,  but if there is a case to be made, I’m sure she’ll make it – and make it forcibly. In the meantime, la-la land may be getting its feet back on the ground.

Leadership in open and distance education universities

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Tram in Lisbon

Tram in Lisbon

 The conference

For 20 years, the Standing Committee of Presidents (SCOP) of the members of the International Council of Distance Education (ICDE) has provided a unique forum for rectors, presidents and senior policy makers in open and distance education to exchange views and experiences and to discuss the latest developments and trends.

This year’s conference (like the first) was organized by Universidade Aberta do Portugal (UAb) in Lisbon, Portugal. Since the inaugural SCOP meeting in 1993, the world of open and distance education has undergone dramatic changes. The number of players in ODL has increased exponentially as  online learning has become mainstream practice in higher education. In the last decade, also, new electronic forms of open educational practice have developed, creating a set of new challenges and opportunities for university top leadership in open and distance education institutions.

The 2013 SCOP meeting therefore focused on change and how leadership has a pivotal role in promoting it. It was also partly a celebration because 2013 is a special anniversary year for the Open University of Portugal, since UAb was also celebrating its own 25 year anniversary. Lastly I have a special connection to UAb, as I received an honorary degree (doctor honoris causa) from UAb in 1995 for my research in distance education teaching.

The European Commission’s strategy for open education

The conference opened with the obligatory speaker from the European Commission, but this time the speaker, Pierre Mairesse, the director responsible in the European Commission for issues related to the European strategy for education and lifelong learning, was both well informed about open and distance education, and very informative about the European Commission’s strategies towards open and online learning.

He talked particularly about the EC’s Opening Up Education initiative, details of which can be found at the Open Education Europa web site. The aim of the initiative is to bring the digital revolution to education with a range of actions in three areas: open learning environments, open educational resources, and connectivity and innovation. The Open Education Europa portal provides convenient access to a wide range of resources, events and papers about open and online education in Europe. As the press release in September stated:

More than 60% of nine year olds in the EU are in schools which are still not digitally equipped. The European Commission’s … action plan [aims to] to tackle this and other digital problems which are hampering schools and universities from delivering high quality education and the digital skills which 90% of jobs will require by 2020. 

For instance, on the Open Education Europa web site you can access OER4Adults, an overview and analysis of practices with Open Educational Resources in adult education in Europe. This has such important implications for the utilization of OERs that I will do a separate post in a few days time on this topic.

Another interesting page on the Open Education Europa web site is the MOOC European scorecard (see below – date loaded: 2 December 2013):

MOOCs Europe 2013

This means that roughly one third of MOOCs are now European, and even more surprisingly, over one third of the European MOOCs are Spanish (probably due to the potential markets in Latin America).

The rationale and the actions proposed by the European Commission through its Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 programs can be found in the following document: Opening up Education: Innovative teaching and learning for all through new Technologies and Open Educational Resources 

Leadership for change in a time of openness

I was the second keynote speaker and I focused on what has changed in 20 years and how institutional leadership has evolved in the world of open and distance learning. Now I need to point out that I have never been a university president, nor am I likely to be one, and there are very good reasons for that, but I have been a close observer and researcher into leadership in open and distance learning.

My key points were as follows:

the key drivers of change in post-secondary education have changed:

  • there is in fact increased access now in many OECD countries, with participation rates in several countries exceeding 50% of a cohort going on to some form of post-secondary educational experience. The issue now in some countries is more about cost than access. The massification of conventional higher education also raises questions about quality.Thus access is no longer a unique selling point for open institutions, although access still remains a critical issue for many developing countries and for marginalized groups in more developed countries. 
  • for economic development reasons there has been a shift of focus towards developing high level skills geared towards the needs of knowledge workers, including digital literacy (in its broadest sense); the mainly ‘broadcast’ pedagogical models adopted by large open universities therefore also need to change for these skills to be developed

increased competition in the ‘open’ and ‘distance’ spaces

  • many conventional universities have moved into online learning, a trend that has rapidly increased with the development of MOOCs; open educational resources also provide another form of open-ness, so ‘open’ or ‘distance’ or ‘online’ are now no longer unique defining features for ODL institutions

leadership for change means challenging prevailing institutional cultures

  • this is as true – if not more true – for established open and distance learning institutions as it is for conventional universities. A particular challenge is to develop nimble and quick models of quality course design that can be applied on a massive scale, and moving away from old technologies such as print and broadcasting while still managing very large numbers of students
  • to implement change successfully, leadership needs to
    • set clear and measurable goals for the institution that differentiate it from other providers
    • involve faculty, instructional designers and media designers in developing new course designs built around new web 2.0 technologies
    • devolve decision-making about technologies to those in the front line (faculty and students), but ensuring they are properly prepared for such decision-making through pedagogical training
    • develop activity-based business models that track the true costs of changing course design and delivery models

one vision for teaching in the future

To conclude, I offered a few pointers to what unique contributions open and distance learning institutions could bring to the higher education market place. In particular:

  • an emphasis on pedagogies built around 21st century digital technologies,
  • open admission policies,
  • reduced cost per student through economies of scale and scope, and
  • quality online learner support

will still provide unique competitive advantages for open and distance learning organizations.

If you want a copy of my slides, please send an e-mail to: tony.bates@ubc.ca

A case-study of institutional change: Universidade Aberta, Portugal

António Moreira Texeira, of the Open University of Portugal, described how between 2006-2009 UAb moved all its courses from print-based to online, resulting in a 40% increase in enrollments and the addition of many new students from Brazil. This change process included introducing a new pedagogical model based on collaborative and interactive learning, and the training of all its instructors/faculty in online teaching.

I was involved in a minor way in helping the university set up its Masters in e-Learning Pedagogy (MPEL – Mestrado em Pedagogia do Elearning), and I had a wonderful 90 minutes after the conference with about 30 students and staff from the program who were attending a one-day workshop. They asked some great questions. The program is in Portuguese: to enrol click here

Talking with MPED students

Talking with MPEL students and staff after the session

The African Virtual University

Bakary Diallo, the Rector of the African Virtual University, gave a very interesting presentation on the development of the African Virtual University, which to date is a meta-organization providing online and distance education services to many existing universities across Africa.

The AVU has more than 50 academic partner institutions in more than 27 countries in Africa. It helps partner institutions set up local study centres in different countries, where programs from numerous partner institutions, learner support and guidance, and access to e-learning technologies are made available. To date there are 10 such centres, in 10 different countries.

The main focus at the moment is on teacher education, with four bachelor programs for teachers of math, physics, chemistry and biology, offered through a consortium of 12 universities in 10 African countries. Delivery is mixed mode, through online learning and attendance at local centres.

AVU though also offers or facilitates a wide range of webinars, self-learning programs, workshops, and certificate/diploma programs, in collaboration with the partner institutions. AVU also offers student scholarships.

Leadership and policy forums

The rest of the conference was given over to participative forums/workshops/buzz groups that discussed ICDE research projects, various innovative projects from member institutions, government relations, co-operation and collaboration with and between other similar organizations, such as EDEN, OECD, UNESCO, SEAMO, EADTU, EFQUEL, Sloan, and the African Council for Distance Education

Conclusion

Not being a university president, this was the first time I had attended a SCOP ICDE conference. I was impressed at how pragmatic and focused the discussions were. The conference also provided a unique opportunity for networking at a leadership level.

Nevertheless, the ICDE membership faces some significant challenges. This is nothing new. For many years, its members have struggled for academic recognition (and in some countries still do, such as Nigeria). However, over time open, distance and online learning have become more accepted and MOOCs have propelled this acceptance even further.

At the same time, the ICDE institutions now have major challenges from conventional and Ivy League universities, particularly for the open and online space. However, open and distance learning institutions still have much to offer, particularly in terms of cost-effectiveness, flexibility and quality. What they lack at the moment is a clear communications strategy that focuses on their unique contributions, and ensures that this message gets across, particularly at the political and governmental level. This conference will have helped moved that agenda forward.

Lastly, Lisbon is one of my very favourite cities: beautiful, unique, with very friendly people, and wonderful wine and food, especially if you like fish. Worth the jet-lag any day.

A view of Lisbon from the Alfama area

A view of Lisbon from the Alfama area

 

 

MOOCs, Norway, and the ecology of digital learning

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© Ron Niebrugge MOOCs are just one species in the online digital forest - and a big and clumsy one

© Ron Niebrugge, 2013 MOOCs are just one species in the online digital forest – and a big and clumsy one

Earlier this week I was in Washington DC, at a conference called Transatlantic Science Week, aimed at promoting collaboration between research, innovation and educational institutions and organizations in the U.S.A, Canada and Norway. The main themes for the conference were International Security, Safety and Emergency Preparedness, Cyber Security and Education Policy/Education Research. (No prizes for guessing which theme I was invited to contribute to, although I have to say the others looked more interesting.) This year’s conference was organized by the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, with guidance from the Research Council of Norway.

The focus in the education theme is the digitalization of higher education, although in practice the focus is almost entirely on MOOCs. One reason for this is that Norway has set up a public commission ‘to inquire into the possibilities and challenges that accompany the development of MOOCs and similar offers.‘ The conference provides an interesting way to examine the current thinking on MOOCs of policy makers both in the U.S.A. and in Norway.

Because this is a rather long post, I’m posting the conclusions first, with more details about the conference which I hope will justify my conclusions.

Main take-aways

The value of this conference is that it brought together politicians, policy wonks, researchers and educational practitioners to share ideas and experiences. In particular, it gave me an insight into why MOOCs have resonated so much with policy-makers and others who are not embedded within the higher education system. It was clear from questions and discussions outside the sessions that policy makers remain convinced that MOOCs do offer the possibilities of lowering the cost of post-secondary education. At the same time, I find myself at conferences about MOOCs like the small boy running around shouting ‘The emperor has no clothes’ – and about as effectively.

So here are my main take-aways from the conference.

  • Houston, we have a problem – ‘we’ being universities and colleges. Publicly funded post-secondary institutions are perceived by important policy-makers as being unnecessarily expensive and perhaps even more importantly, not adapting fast enough to meet the demands of the 21st century
  • as a result, politicians and policy-makers are only too willing to grasp at anything that might disrupt the perceived complacency within the system. MOOCs fit this requirement to perfection
  • there is a growing tendency to conflate MOOCs with online learning in general. This suits of course the elite universities who have come 20 years late to the party – they are re-defining online learning according to their own interests
  • even re-designing a large class in a highly selective institution is now considered to be a MOOC, so as well as the conflation with online learning, MOOCs are now being equated with any large class delivered online. The concept of open-ness runs the risk of being lost, with the focus switching to free or cheap
  • if they can get past the hubris, Ivy League universities have a lot to offer online learning. There were several examples in the conference of innovative approaches to online learning from some of the top universities in the USA, but they weren’t MOOCs as most of us would understand the term. We need to bridge the gap between the Ivy League newcomers and those who have been working in online learning elsewhere. We will all benefit from this
  • as a profession we have failed miserably to disseminate best practices in online learning to busy practitioners/instructors. This is not entirely our fault. If there is no requirement for pre-service training to teach in a university, there is no opportunity to bring these best practices to the attention of all faculty. Training new faculty in modern teaching methods, including online learning, based on good pedagogy and cognitive science, is the best way to address the perception that universities and colleges are failing to adapt to the 21st century.

Above all, universities need to be more cost-effective, and if they aren’t, they are going to have methods forced on them that may not have the best outcomes, either for the institutions, or for the rest of us. How each country responds to MOOCs could well define which countries will end up more equal than others, and which will succeed or fail economically and socially in the latter part of this century.

The digital democratization of universities

This was the topic of the first parallel session in the education theme . The first speaker was Norway’s new Minister of Education and Research, Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, who has been in the job for less than one month, and is the youngest member of the cabinet, at 35. In his speech he demonstrated that he was well briefed on MOOCs and their potential, and is therefore looking forward to the Commission’s report (even though the commission was set up by the previous government). He raised some thoughtful questions about MOOCs, which makes me think he is keeping an open mind on the issue, in the best sense of the word.

The Rector of the University of Bergen gave a straightforward talk about the pros and cons of MOOCs, which would come as no surprise for anyone familiar with MOOCs, but was essential for providing a common understanding among all participants. There was the usual American hyperbole about MOOCs from no less than a representative from the American Science Foundation, e.g. ‘the important thing about MOOCs is they allow for the quantifiable measurement of learning on a massive scale‘. This from an electrical engineer, the world experts on educational measurement. I’m sorry, but qualitative assessment is not ‘bad’ but essential in many areas of higher education. There is more than one epistemology.

The most interesting presentation in this session came from Cathy Sandeen, the VP, Education Attainment and Innovation, at the American Council of Education. She reported that currently 18-24 year olds constitute less than 25% of all post-secondary students in the USA. Students aged 24-34 constitute 65% of all students now, most of whom are working at least part-time, and many of whom have children. Even more importantly, the U.S.A. participation rate in post-secondary education is now only 42%, putting it in the bottom quartile of OECD countries, whereas 20 years ago it was top. To catch up, it would need to add another one million places. She ended with a brief account of ACE’s efforts at accrediting MOOCs (for my take on this, see an earlier post.)

In short, I didn’t hear anything in this section that suggested that MOOCs or online learning were doing anything to ‘democratize’ higher education – they may be, but no evidence came out of this session.

MOOCs and the re-inventing of higher education

I was on a great panel, with Chris Dede, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and one of the best researchers in educational technology, taking the lead. The other panelists were Berit Kjelstadt, the chair of Norway’s public commission on MOOCs, and Wendy Newstetter, a cognitive scientist/engineer from Georgia Institute of Technology. Wendy got our panel organized. The whole day to date had been wall-to-wall presentations with no time for questions even, so we organized the session with plenty of time for questions and discussion.

Chris Dede was the lead speaker. He argued that high quality teaching required at least three conditions: cognitive knowledge, situated learning (learning embedded in context), and a community of learners (social learning). He pointed out that most MOOCs were able to scale only the cognitive knowledge element effectively (as he put it ‘old wine in new bottles’). He argued that virtual immersive environments or virtual worlds allowed for the other two elements to be scaled, and showed a video of EcoMUVE, a virtual reality eco pond,  a multi-user virtual environment in which students are immersed in a virtual environment and interact with avatar-based identities to investigate an ecosystem. More can be found on this approach here.

In my presentation I thought it important to place MOOCs within the broader framework of online learning, because it was clear that many participants seemed to be equating MOOCs with all online learning. I briefly summarized what was happening in credit-based online learning (high completion rates when best practice is used), hybrid learning, mobile learning, OERs, virtual worlds, remote labs, social media and learning, etc., and then argued that xMOOCs were re-inventing the wheel, and so far the wheel is square. Conclusion: MOOCs are just one species in the online learning forest, and a big and clumsy one at that.

More provocatively, I also argued that xMOOCs are more likely to increase inequality, by undermining publicly funded education, leaving an elite of campus-based universities for the very rich, resulting in high paid knowledge-worker employment for them, and massive information transmission delivered to the rest, who will be confined to low-wage service jobs because of their lack of high-level critical thinking skills. (For a copy of the slides, send me an e-mail (tony.bates@ubc.ca) and I will send an invitation to download them via Dropbox).

Berit Kjelstadt gave a brief summary of her commission’s mandate, then Wendy responded to the three presentations, with a particular emphasis on the need for problem-based approaches to education, particularly in science and engineering. The following questions and responses were lively, with a focus on the high costs of post-secondary education, and whether MOOCs will be a means by which to drive down costs.

The Gatsby curve - will MOOCs increase or reduce inequality? (© Globe and Mail, 2013)

The Gatsby curve – will MOOCs increase or reduce inequality? (© Globe and Mail, 2013)

Is blended learning the future in academia?

The program framed ‘blended learning’ as follows: ‘MOOCs provide an opportunity to …combine different learning practices, for instance, classroom instruction in Oslo, supplemented with streamed lectures from Stanford and online interaction with other students on and off campus.’ However, the speakers in this session didn’t quite see it this way.

Glynda Hull, of the University of California, Berkeley, described a really neat multimedia platform for collaborative learning designed and developed at UC Berkeley, linked to a Canvas LMS. This enables students to create and share multimedia objects and work collaboratively on projects. This looked a nice software development based on sound educational principles (although I suspect the same could be done, perhaps less elegantly, with a combination of WordPress, Mahara and Moodle), and the presentation was marred only by the usual hubris from faculty from elite universities and their re-writing of online learning history (‘Online learning to date has failed to enable effective collaborative learning…‘. Roll over Turoff, Hiltz, Scardamalia, Harasim, Pratt and Paloff, Salmon, etc. – and of course cMOOCs never existed. I was too transfixed with absorbing this to ask whether this tool was an open educational resource.

Bent Kure from the University of Oslo described how they have redesigned a first year philosophy class (mandatory for all students) into a MOOC-like course for the 2,000+ students a year who had previously studied this as self-directed learning ( ‘Here’s the textbook – turn up at the exam.’), because there was no way to fit them all into a lecture hall. The new version consisted of 8-10 minute videos+textbook+online discussion+mobile app+online tests. Well, ANYTHING would be better than the previous arrangement, wouldn’t it? And surprise, the other students who were privileged to attend the lectures also were using the stuff. But is this a MOOC? (and does it matter?).

The last session was about how George Washington University was designing its MOOC on the history of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, and especially how they were using professional-standard video rather than talking heads (probably wise since the participants include Bernanke, Greenspan and Volker). It seems to me that this will be one of the new generation of MOOCs in that it has involved instructional designers and a team approach that is often found in credit-based online courses.

Yes, blended learning is the future in academia, especially for very large first and second year classes. However, the external MOOC integrated into local teaching is probably not the model that will dominate. I suspect experience will show that better results can be obtained by careful re-design, including the flexible incorporation of a wide range of OERs, not only MOOCs. In particular, copyright issues need to be recognized, since Coursera and Udacity MOOC materials are not open for re-use without permission.

Technology-enhanced learning: what do we know and what is yet to be learned

The Research Council of Norway issued a contract for a complete review of the literature on technology-enhanced learning (the European term for information and communications technologies in education) over the last 20 years, covering the whole range from pre-school to post-secondary education to lifelong learning. This involved a trawl of over 1,000 journals (an example of how scattered the research is in this area), using the Thomson Reuters and Google Scholar indexing databases. The aim was to do an objective review of the research, based on a quantitative count of citations used.

Barbara Wasson and Konrad Morgan, the two contractors, gave a detailed presentation of the methodology and preliminary findings. This report when published will be extremely useful, but because of their desire to be totally objective, they were reluctant to ‘editorialize’. However, it is clear that a number of conclusions can be drawn already from this study:

  • there is a long history of research in this field, dating back over sixty years
  • some themes, such as computer aided instruction/CBL, collaborative learning, and robotic intelligent tutoring, have continued right through to today
  • just counting citations has its limits: for instance an ‘in-group’ can boost its count by cross-referencing each others’ work, without really impacting on practice or even the dissemination of knowledge to a wider group
  • the great majority of research is extremely short-term, with low samples: funding agencies should concentrate on more longitudinal studies and bigger samples
  • researchers are often isolated, working alone or in small groups, and therefore have little overall impact
  • a great majority of research is tool-based which goes quickly out of date as new tools arrive; researchers fail often to learn from earlier research on similar tools
  • there is a huge problem with aggregating, summarizing and disseminating the often very useful research to practitioners: it is largely inaccessible

As readers will know, I am not afraid to editorialize, summarize or disseminate, so I ended the session with my take on how prior online learning research could inform and improve the design of MOOCs (the same presentation I made to the MIT LINC conference.)

Where was Canada?

The conference attracted over 300 participants, two government ministers from Norway, including the Minister of Education and Research, one congressman from the USA, the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Education, and leading academics from some of the USA’s most prestigious universities and higher education organizations, with of course heavy representation from the Ministry of Education and Research, the Research Council, and universities in Norway.

By contrast, Canada was virtually unrepresented. From the participants list, it appears that only two Canadians attended, myself (invited by the Research Council of Norway), and Barbara Wasson, a Canadian researcher living and working in Norway. Where has the Canadian Embassy in Washington been on this event? There were as many representatives listed from the  Macedonian and Serbian embassies as from Canada, and I never found the Canadian Embassy person. No doubt Washington Canadian Embassy staff have been working to rule, as part of a widespread industrial dispute in Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, but since the conference next year is scheduled to be held in Toronto, the lack of Canadian representation at this conference was shocking, especially since Canada has some of the most knowledgeable people on MOOCs (and I’m not one of them), cyber security and emergency preparedness. It is Canada’s loss that we were not better represented at this most valuable conference, which is why I have spent so much effort on this post.

 

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.