August 3, 2015

What is the role of Canadian universities in indigenous education?

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First Nations University of Canada, Saskatchewan

First Nations University of Canada, Saskatchewan

Universities Canada (2015) Universities Canada principles on Indigenous education Ottawa: Universities Canada, June 29

Yesterday was Canada Day, and I am very proud to be Canadian. But Canada as a country has made an awful mess of its relationship with its aboriginal peoples, as the recent devastating report by the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission has made abundantly clear. The big question is where Canada goes from here, not just in making restitution for past mistreatment, but more importantly in ensuring that aboriginal people can develop in ways that benefit both them and the country as a whole.

The education of aboriginal people is a key but difficult issue, as it is not just about making sure that aboriginal people have the same educational opportunities as other Canadians, but that their education reflects aboriginal values and needs. In recent years, there has been very important progress in developing aboriginal lawyers (especially important, given the many outstanding land claims and resource development) and aboriginal doctors and health workers, but I have not seen the same progress being made in aboriginal education. In particular, aboriginal education, which constitutionally is a Federal responsibility, is poorly funded, and more importantly, badly managed, partly because education is a provincial responsibility for everyone else, and partly because the Federal government oscillates between ham-fisted intervention and neglect.

I was somewhat heartened then to see that Universities Canada, in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, has issued a set of 13 principles of indigenous education. However, on closer examination, I find this yet another example of a well-meaning but ineffective response to a national disgrace. There is nothing to disagree with in respect of the 13 principles, but the document goes nowhere near to the heart of the problem.

In Canada, less than 10 percent of indigenous people in Canada have a university degree, compared to 28 percent of non-Aboriginals, but the main challenge of indigenous education is the very low numbers successfully completing high school, which results in far fewer aboriginal students qualifying for university or, more importantly, for vocational and technical education. Canada spends far less per child on aboriginal education than it does for non-aboriginal children.

Thus there are two things I would like to have seen from Universities Canada:

  • a clear statement of the reasons why there are fewer aboriginal students in universities, and what needs to be done to bring the numbers up, including more money being spent on aboriginal k-12 education and reforms to the management of aboriginal k-12 education. Without such steps, aboriginal people in Canada will continue to miss out on higher education;
  • a plan of action to improve aboriginal post-secondary education, involving a partnership between the universities and aboriginal people, in the form perhaps of a high level task force, with a defined period in which to report, and with a mandate to propose a budgeted program of actions for provincial, federal and aboriginal governments, as well as recommendations for the universities themselves.

Until then, the 13 principles will remain a pious but ineffective response. In the meantime, would it be too much to ask the main political parties in Canada, in the run-up to the election in October, what their policies and actions will be to improve aboriginal education? (Please feel free to use this space.)

Advice to the Alberta government on Athabasca University’s sustainability report

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AU sustainability report 2

McKinnon, P. at al. (2015) The Future is Now: Report of the Presidential Task Force on Sustainability Athabasca AB: Athabasca University

The university kindly provided me with a pdf copy of the report, and an online version of the full report is available by clicking on the title above (thanks, Colin Madland). (For shorthand, AU in this post refers to Athabasca University, NOT the University of Alberta).

So I have now read the report in full. I have had some lengthy comments from several AU faculty about the report and my previous blog post, and have had a chance also to read some of the press comment. I have also had a very challenging e-mail from a student, wanting to know whether they should still be considering Athabasca University as part of their learning plans. I will deal with this question in a separate post. Here I want to focus on the report itself.

Who is the report for and what is it trying to achieve?

I think I would need to be a fly on the wall during the AU’s Board meetings to really answer those questions with authority, but it is a critical question, since there are so many stakeholders involved (Government, Board, faculty, staff, students, local politicians and the local communities that support and are supported by the university). However, the report itself offers this:

the task force was directed to report on options to the Government of Alberta and the university community…

However, considering that the university’s Board and administration has been struggling with the issue of funding and sustainability for some time, and has responsibility and at least some control over internal matters, the real target of this report is most likely the provincial government, and the main goal is to get more operating funding from the government. If it is not the main goal, that is what it should be.

However, another interpretation could be that the university administration has been unsuccessful in its attempts to change the culture of the university, negotiate sensible collective agreements, or get more money from government, so it is trying to scare the bejeezus out of its faculty and staff into believing that unless they change, the end is nigh.

Of course, both of these motivations for the report could be possible.

What does the report actually say?

The basic message is that the university will go bust in two years time, and to avoid that possibility it suggests four possible strategies:

  • drop out-of-province students and focus only on Albertans
  • become more efficient and effective
  • federation with another Alberta institution
  • join with other open institutions across Canada and beyond, within a national strategy of open and distance learning.

See my earlier post for more on this.

What do I agree with in the report?

Although the case that the university is financially unsustainable is not actually made in the report, I think most people other than really entrenched faculty recognise that the university cannot continue as it has been doing over the past few years. It almost certainly needs more money from the provincial government, just to serve the citizens of Alberta, never mind the majority of its students that come from across Canada. It also needs to make some fundamental changes internally to ensure that it is fit for teaching in a digital age, which will need substantial capital investment and cultural change from within.

The report also makes another important point:

What is lacking in both a provincial and national context is a substantive and strategic framework that advances Alberta’s and Canada’s place in online learning and Athabasca University’s place within it.

Also, reading some of the media coverage of the report, it is clear that many associated with the university are in a deep state of denial about the seriousness of the situation at AU. I think the Board and the university leadership are right to indicate that the university is facing an existential crisis, although mainly for reasons that are not addressed in the report (see below).

What is wrong with the report

I hardly know where to begin, but let’s start with the obvious:

1. A lack of vision for the future

There may be a lack of a provincial or national strategy for online or open learning, but successful institutions create their own future, and on the way, change the environment around them. What is really lacking from this report is a clear vision of what AU wants to be in the future, and how that vision would fit with the rest of the Albertan (and national and international) online and open education world.

There is nothing in this report on sustainability beyond the usual platitudes about widening access that suggests why the university is worth sustaining. In particular what is the added value that AU can or should be offering to the Alberta post-secondary system? There are good answers to these questions but they do not seem to be coming from the university management. Yet this is critical for the long-term sustainability of the university.

The reason for this appears to me to be that no-one in the senior administration really understands what business it is in. This is not, nor should it be, a conventional university. It should be addressing issues of access (particularly for aboriginals, lifelong learners and immigrants in Alberta), being an innovator in teaching and learning, and setting standards for quality delivery of online, open and distance education. It should be negotiating its role viz-viz what the conventional institutions are planning for online and open education, and what it will do and what they will do. Where is the vision, and the strategy for implementing the vision?

2. A viable financial plan

I find it almost incredible that if the main goal is to get more money from government, the report does not offer a detailed analysis of what the problem is, financially, and how it could be solved, in terms of operating and capital dollars. The only specific ask is for $38 million for investment in IT infrastructure. No doubt there are other documents that have gone to government with this information, but surely a summary of the actual financial data that shows why there is a financial crisis looming is needed, if only to convince or persuade the university community.

Even given the dire state of government finances in Alberta at the moment, its operational funding problem is probably easily fixable in terms of the total size of the Alberta budget, if the government can be persuaded that the university offers a valuable service. You have to wonder why AU needs so much capital investment in IT in an age of cloud computing. Too often large IT funding requests are a way to buy oneself out of bad IT management and strategies, but it may be a realistic request for all I know, and resolvable through a thorough external review.

What the report does not discuss, though, for obvious reasons, is that the university has been really badly managed over the last seven years or so (for just one example, see What’s going on at Athabasca University?), so the issue is more one of a lack of trust and confidence in the university, leading to government officials being extremely wary of throwing good money after bad. The report of course does nothing to address this key issue, instead blaming the location of the institution, bad collective agreements, and the lack of love from the provincial government. Without a serious financial plan for the future, linked to a strong vision, and better management and governance, that love is likely to continue to be lacking.

3. The proposed solutions do not solve AU’s problems

The four options are no more than window-dressing or lipstick on a pig. None of them will work without more money, at least initially. Let’s look at each one:

  • serve only Albertans: I don’t see how losing 70 per cent of your clients can help financially, unless the School of Business at AU has a revolutionary new theory of return on investment. Online and open universities have high fixed costs and low marginal costs (or should have), so they should be able to offer courses to clients outside the province at relatively low cost. The government may rightly cap tuition fees for Albertan students, but why not charge cost plus for out-of-province students? Again, where’s the business plan for AU’s future?
  • become more efficient and effective: well, why hasn’t it done that already? This sounds like every business mantra, but really reducing costs without changing your core business activities is a recipe for disaster. AU needs to move to a more effective, lighter online teaching model, but that will need more investment initially (and lower operating costs per student later), and yes, probably a change in collective agreements and will result in some redundant staff. The university should have done this years ago and now has a lot of catching up to do. Without a plan for what this new model will look like and the actual costs, though, why would government give it this extra investment, and why would the unions agree to any changes?
  • federation with another Alberta institution: how will this lead to cost savings – where’s the plan? Who would want an outdated model of distance course delivery? The only arrangement that would really save money would be to close AU, but make sure the valuable staff who have experience and knowledge of modern online teaching and open education are absorbed by the other Albertan institutions. More likely, though. all that knowledge and experience would go outside the province, so everyone would lose.
  • a multi-institutional, national federation: well, we already have one, it’s called the Canadian Virtual University, and for all its good intentions, it is relatively ineffective, because Canadian provinces don’t work collaboratively in higher education (e.g. credit transfer), and there is no national HE policy for constitutional reasons.

So what is the solution to AU’s woes?

Not my job, really, to answer this question, but here’s my two cents worth (and no, I’m retired, so don’t ask me to to do the work needed):

1. Canada needs a high-level, effective, world-leading open university/college. Despite huge increases in the capacity of conventional universities, and the adoption of online learning in conventional universities, there are still major gaps in accessibility, and lack of opportunities for online learning, especially in Alberta.

2. AU needs to develop a strong vision and strategy that identifies those gaps in access, and how it will meet them, and clarify its role viz-a-viz other Albertan universities and colleges in providing online programs.

3. AU needs a new teaching and learning plan that takes account of recent developments in teaching methods and online technologies.

4. AU needs to develop a realistic long-term business plan that will support this vision and its teaching and learning plan that it can sell to the government.

5. It is clear from the last seven years and now this report that the current Board and senior administration at AU are not up to the tasks outlined above, so the provincial government should appoint a new Board, and a new President for a minimum five year term, who has knowledge and understanding of open, online and distance learning (you don’t appoint a sea captain to fly a commercial airliner). This is urgent and needs to be done in the next few months or so. The new President should be free to put in place a senior management team of his or her choice.

6. Until a new Board and President is in place, the provincial government should maintain its current level of funding for AU, and guarantee Albertans who commence an AU degree or qualification that they will be supported in their online studies, whatever happens (i.e. if it eventually decides to close AU, the credits and programs will be transferred to a provincially recognised Albertan institution). It should then review AU’s funding within 12 months of the appointment of the President and Board, when it has received AU’s vision and business plan for the future.

I will write a separate post on advice to students considering applying to AU.

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

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

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

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

What is it about?

EDUCAUSE has published a very interesting white paper that:

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

What problem does the paper address?

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

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

What solution does the paper propose?

A next generation digital learning environment (NGDLE):

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

It must address five domains of core functionality:

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

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

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

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

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

Comments

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

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

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

1. Be careful what you wish for

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Read the paper and make up your own mind

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

A future vision for OER and online learning

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For each chapter of my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, I am developing imaginary but hopefully realistic scenarios. In this scenario, developed as a closing to my chapter on ‘Modes of Delivery and Open Education’, I look at how modularization could lead both a wider range of access to credit courses and more open use of learning materials.

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Figure 10.1 The Hart River, Yukon. Image: © www.protectpeel.ca, CC BY-NC

Figure 10.1.F The Hart River, Yukon.
Image: © www.protectpeel.ca, CC BY-NC

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Research faculty in the Faculties of Land Management and Forestry at the (mythical) University of Western Canada developed over a number of years a range of ‘learning artefacts’, digital graphics, computer models and simulations about watershed management, partly as a consequence of research conducted by faculty, and partly to generate support and funding for further research.

At a faculty meeting several years ago, after a somewhat heated discussion, faculty members voted to make these resources openly available for re-use for educational purposes under a Creative Commons license that requires attribution and prevents commercial use without specific written permission from the copyright holders, who in this case are the faculty responsible for developing the artefacts. What swayed the vote is that the majority of the faculty actively involved in the research wanted to make these resources more widely available. The agencies responsible for funding the work that lead to the development of the artefacts (mainly national research councils) welcomed the move to makes these artefacts more widely available as open educational resources.

Initially, the researchers just put the graphics and simulations up on the research group’s web site. It was left to individual faculty members to decide whether to use these resources in their teaching. Over time, faculty started to introduce these resources into a range of on-campus undergraduate and graduate courses.

After a while, though, word seemed to get out about these OER. The research faculty began to receive e-mails and phone calls from other researchers around the world. It became clear that there was a network or community of researchers in this field who were creating digital materials as a result of their research, and it made sense to share and re-use materials from other sites. This eventually led to an international web ‘portal’ of learning artefacts on watershed management.

The researchers also started to get calls from a range of different agencies, from government ministries or departments of environment, local environmental groups, First Nations/aboriginal bands, and, occasionally, major mining or resource extraction companies, leading to some major consultancy work for the faculty in the department. At the same time, the faculty were able to attract further research funding from non-governmental agencies such as the Nature Conservancy and some ecological groups, as well as from their traditional funding source, the national research councils, to develop more OER.

By this time, instructors had access to a fairly large amount of OER. There were already two fourth and fifth level fully online courses built around the OER that were being offered successfully to undergraduate and graduate students.

A proposal was therefore put forward to create initially a fully online post-graduate certificate program on watershed management, built around existing OER, in partnership with a university in the USA and another one in Sierra Leone. This certificate program was to be self-funding from tuition fees, with the tuition fees for the 25 Sierra Leone students to be initially covered by an international aid agency. The Dean, after a period of hard negotiation, persuaded the university administration that the tuition fees from the certificate program should go directly to the two Faculties whose staff were teaching the program.From these funds, the departments would hire additional tenured faculty to teach or backfill for the certificate, and the Faculties would pay 25 per cent of the tuition revenues to the university as overheads.

This decision was made somewhat easier by a fairly substantial grant from Foreign Affairs Canada to make the certificate program available in English and French to Canadian mining and resource extraction companies with contracts and partnerships in African countries.

Although the certificate program was very successful in attracting students from North America, Europe and New Zealand, it was not taken up very well in Africa beyond the partnership with the university in Sierra Leone, although there was a lot of interest in the OER and the issues raised in the certificate courses. After two years of running the certificate, then, the Faculties made two major decisions:

  • another three courses and a research project would be added to the certificate courses, and this would be offered as a fully cost recoverable online master in land and water systems. This would attract greater participation from managers and professionals in African countries in particular, and provide a recognised qualification that many of the certificate students were requesting
  • drawing on the large network of external experts now involved one way or another with the researchers, the university would offer a series of MOOCs on watershed management issues, with volunteer experts from outside the university being invited to participate and provide leadership in the MOOCs. The MOOCs would be able to draw on the existing OER.

Five years later, the following outcomes were recorded by the Dean of one of the faculties at an international conference on sustainability:

  • the online master’s program had doubled the total number of graduate students across the two faculties
  • the master’s program was fully cost-recoverable from tuition fees
  • there were 120 graduates a year from the master’s program
  • the degree completion rate was 64 per cent
  • six new tenured faculty has been hired, plus another six post-doctoral research faculty
  • several thousand students had registered and paid for at least one course in the certificate or master’s program, of which 45 per cent were from outside Canada
  • over 100,000 students had taken the MOOCs, almost half from developing countries
  • there were now over 1,000 hours of OER on watershed management available and downloaded many times across the world, attracting more students and revenue to the university
  • the university was now internationally recognised as a world leader in watershed management.

Although this scenario is purely a figment of my imagination, it is influenced by real and exciting work, much of which was developed as open access materials from the start, at the University of British Columbia:

Over to you

1. Does this strike you as a realistic scenario?

2. How useful are scenarios like this for thinking about the future? Could you use similar kinds of scenarios in your program planning or for faculty development, for instance?

3, If you have used scenarios for online learning in similar ways, would you be willing to share one?

4. Most of the elements of this scenario already exist at UBC. What I have done though is bring things together from different parts of the university into an integrated single scenario. What could be done within institutions to make this cross-disciplinary transfer of ideas and strategies easier to achieve? (It should be noted that UBC already has a Flexible Learning initiative, including a strategy team within the Provost’s office, which should help with this.)

Next

Just one more post to wrap up the chapter on Modes of Delivery and Open Education: the key takeaways from this chapter.

 

 

The implications of ‘open’ for course and program design: towards a paradigm shift

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10.10.1 Open and free Image: © Tony Bates 2015 CC BY-NC

10.10.1 An open and free beach, Pie de la Cuesta, Mexico
Image: © Tony Bates 2015 CC BY-NC

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I am usually very cautious not to use the term ‘paradigm shift’, but I do believe that the term is justified by the implications of open approaches to education, especially for higher education. This post aims to set out why this paradigm shift is slowly taking place.

This is the fourth of five posts on ‘open’ in education for my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. The previous three posts were:

The last post will be a scenario that illustrates the main points of this series of posts.

Although in recent years MOOCs have been receiving all the media attention, I believe that developments in open educational resources, ‘open textbooks, open research and open data will be far more important than MOOCs and far more revolutionary. Here are some reasons why.

10.10.1 Nearly all content will be free and open

Eventually most academic content will be easily accessible and freely available through the Internet – for anyone. This could well mean a shift in power from instructors to students. Students will no longer be dependent on instructors as their primary source of content. Already some students are skipping lectures at their local institution because the teaching of the topic is better and clearer on OpenLearn, MOOCs or the Khan Academy. If students can access the best lectures or learning materials for free from anywhere in the world, including the leading Ivy League universities, why would they want to get content from a middling instructor at Midwest State University? What is the added value that this instructor is providing for their students?

There are good answers to this question, but it means considering very carefully how content will be presented and shaped by an instructor that makes it uniquely different from what students can access elsewhere. For research professors this may include access to their latest, as yet unpublished, research; for other instructors, it may be their unique perspective on a particular topic, and for others, a unique mix of topics to provide an integrated, inter-disciplinary approach. What will not be acceptable to most students is repackaging of ‘standard’ content that can easily be found elsewhere on the Internet and at a higher quality.

Furthermore, if we look at knowledge management as one of the key skills needed in a digital age, it may be better to enable students to find, analyze, evaluate and apply content than for instructors to do it for them. If most content is available elsewhere, what students will look for increasingly from their local institutions is support with their learning, rather than the delivery of content. This means directing them to appropriate sources of content, helping when students are struggling with concepts, and providing opportunities for students to apply their knowledge and to develop and practice skills. It means giving prompt and relevant feedback as and when students need it. Above all, it means creating a rich learning environment in which students can study (see Chapter 5). It means moving teaching from information transmission to knowledge management, from selecting, structuring and delivering content to learner support.

Thus for most students within their university or college (with the possible exception of the most advanced research universities) the quality of the learning support will eventually matter more than the quality of content delivery, which they can get from anywhere. This is a major challenge for instructors who see themselves primarily as content experts.

10.2.2 Modularisation

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Figure 10.10.2 Four-sided pyramid, by Sol LeWitt, 1999 Image: Cliff, Flickr, CC Attribution 2.0

Figure 10.10.2 Four-sided pyramid, by Sol LeWitt, 1999
Image: Cliff, Flickr, © CC Attribution 2.0

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The creation of open educational resources, either as small learning objects but increasingly as short ‘modules’ of teaching, from anywhere between five minutes to one hour of material, and the increasing diversification of markets, is beginning to result in two of the key principles of OER being applied, re-use and re-mix. In other words, the same content, available in an openly accessible digital form, may be integrated into a range of different applications, and/or combined with other OER to create a single teaching module, course or program.

An early example of this was the development of an online, applied master’s program in educational technology at the University of British Columbia. The program started initially as a set of five courses leading to a post-graduate certificate. However, students were able to pay separately for each course, thus being able to take any one of the five courses or any combination, if that was their main interest. If they successfully passed all five courses they were awarded a certificate (nowadays, they would probably have received a badge for each course). Later, the university added five more courses to the existing five courses, and offered all ten courses as a master’s program. Students who had taken the previous five courses as a certificate were able to ladder these in and take the remaining five courses for a master (provided they met the university’s general admission requirements for graduate programs, i.e. they already had a bachelor degree). Tec de Monterrey, in Mexico, in partnership with UBC, took the materials and translated and adapted them into Spanish, enabling it to offer its own Master in Educational Technology throughout Latin America.

The Ontario government, through its online course development fund, is encouraging institutions to create OER. As a result, several universities have brought together faculty within their own institution but working in different departments that teach the same area of content (e.g. statistics) to develop ‘core’ OER that can be shared between departments. The logical next step would be for statistics faculty across the Ontario system to get together and develop an integrated set of OER modules on statistics that would cover substantial parts of the statistics curriculum. Working together would have the following benefits:

  • higher quality by pooling resources (two subject expert heads are better than one, combined with support from instructional designers and web producers)
  • more OER than one instructor or institution could produce
  • subject coherence and lack of duplication
  • more likelihood of faculty in one institution using materials created in another if they have had input to the selection and design of the OER from other institutions.

As the range and quality of OER increases, instructors (and students) will be able to build curriculum through a set of OER ‘building blocks’. The aim would be to reduce instructor time in creating materials (perhaps focusing on creating their own OER in areas of specific subject or research expertise), and using their time more in supporting student learning than in delivering content.

10.10.3 Disaggregation of services

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Figure 10.3 Disaggregation Image: © Aaron 'tango' Tan,   Flickr, CC Attribution 2.0

Figure 10.10.3 Disaggregation
Image: © Aaron ‘tango’ Tan, Flickr, CC Attribution 2.0

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Open education and digitization enable what has tended to be offered by institutions as a complete bundle of services to be split out and offered separately, depending on the market for education and the unique needs of individual learners. Learners will select and use those modules or services that best fit their needs. This is likely to be the pattern for lifelong learners in particular. Some early indications of this process are already occurring, although most of the really significant changes are yet to come:

  • admission and program counselling. This is a service already offered by Empire State University, a part of the State University of New York. Adult learners considering a return to study or a career change can receive mentoring about what courses and combinations they can take from within the college that fit with their previous life and their future wishes. In essence, within boundaries potential students are able to design their own degree. In the future, some institutions might specialise in this kind of service at a system level.
  • learner support. Students may have already determined what they want to study through the Internet, such as a MOOC. What they are looking for is help with their studies: how to write assignments, where to look for information, feedback on their work and thinking. They are not necessarily looking for a credit, degree or other qualification, but if they are they will pay for assessment separately. Currently, students pay private tutors for this service. However, it is feasible that institutions could also provide this service, provided that a suitable business model can be built.
  • assessment. Learners may feel that through prior study and work, they are able to take a challenge exam for credit. All they require from the institution is a chance to be assessed. Institutions such as Western Governors’ University or the Open Learning division of Thompson Rivers University are already offering this service., and this would be a logical next step for the many other universities or colleges with some form of prior learning assessment or PLAR.
  • qualifications. Learners may have acquired a range of credits, badges or certificates from a range of different institutions. The institution assesses these qualifications and experiences and helps the learner to take any further studies that are necessary, then awards the qualification. Prior learning assessment or PLAR is one step in this direction, but not the only one.
  • fully online courses and programs for learners who cannot or do not want to attend campus. The cost would be lower than for students receiving a full campus experience.
  • open access to content. The learner is not looking for any qualification, but wants access to content, particularly new and emerging knowledge. MOOCs are one example, but other examples include OpenLearn and open textbooks
  • the full campus experience. This would be the ‘traditional’ integrated package that full-time, campus-based students now receive. This would though be fully costed and much more expensive than any of the other disaggregated services.

Note that I have been careful not to link any of these services to a specific funding model. This is deliberate, because it could be:

  • covered through privatisation, where each service is separately priced and the user pays for that service (but not for others not used),
  • financed through a voucher system, whereby everyone at the age 18 is entitled to a notional amount of financial support from the state for post-secondary education, and can pay for a range of service from that voucher until their individual fund is exhausted, or
  • all or some services would be available for free as part of a publicly funded open education system.

Whatever the funding model, institutions will need to be able to price different services accurately. In any case, there is now an increasing diversity of learners’ needs, from high school students wanting full-time education, graduate students wanting to do research, and lifelong learners, most of whom will have already passed through a publicly funded higher education system, wanting to keep learning either for vocational or personal reasons.  This increasing diversity of needs requires a more flexible approach to providing educational opportunities in a digital age. Disaggregation of services and new models of funding, combined with increased accessibility to free, open content, are some ways in which this flexibility can be provided.

10.10.4 ‘Open’ course designs

The use of open educational resources could play out in a number of ways, including:

  • by students, in a learner-centered teaching approach that focuses on students accessing content on the Internet (and in real life) as part of developing knowledge, skills and competencies defined by the instructor, or (for advanced learners) being managed by learners themselves. However, this would not be restricted to officially approved open educational resources, but to everything on the Internet, because one of the core skills students will need is how to assess and evaluate different sources of information;
  • by a consortium of instructors or institutions creating common learning materials within a broader program context, that can be shared both within and outside the consortium. However, not only would the content be available, but also the underlying instructional principles, learning outcomes, learner assessment strategies, what learner support is needed, learner activities, and program evaluation techniques, so that other instructors or learners can adapt to their own context. This approach is already being taken by

We have already seen that the increasing availability of high quality open content may result in a shift from information transmission by the instructor to knowledge management by the learner. Earlier in the book, we also discussed a greater focus on skills development embedded within a subject domain than on the memorisation of content. Both these developments will enable the development of skills needed in a digital age.

These developments are likely to lead to a severe reduction in lecture-based teaching and a move towards more project work, problem-based learning and collaborative learning. It will also result in a move away from fixed time and place written examinations, to more continuous, portfolio-based forms of assessment.

The role of the instructor then will shift to providing guidance to learners on where and how to find content, how to evaluate the relevance and reliability of content, what content areas are core and what peripheral, and to helping students analyse, apply and present information, within a strong learning design that focuses on clearly defined learning outcomes, particularly with regard to the development of skills. Students will work mainly online and collaboratively, developing multi-media learning artefacts or demonstrations of their learning, managing their online portfolios of work, and editing and presenting selected work for assessment.

10.10.5 Conclusions

Despite all the hoopla around MOOCs, they are essentially a dead end with regard to providing learners who do not have adequate access to education with what they want: high quality qualifications. The main barrier to education is not lack of cheap content but lack of access to programs leading to credentials, either because such programs are too expensive, or because there are not enough qualified teachers, or both. Making content free is not a waste of time (if it is properly designed for secondary use), but it still needs a lot of time and effort to integrate it properly within a learning framework.

Open educational resources do have an important role to play in online education, but they need to be properly designed, and developed within a broader learning context that includes the critical activities needed to support learning, such as opportunities for student-instructor and peer interaction, and within a culture of sharing, such as consortia of equal partners and other frameworks that provide a context that encourages and supports sharing. In other words, OER need skill and hard work to make them useful, and selling them as a panacea for education does more harm than good.

Although open and flexible learning and distance education and online learning mean different things, the one thing they all have in common is an attempt to provide alternative means of high quality education or training for those who either cannot take conventional, campus-based programs, or choose not to.

Lastly, there are no insurmountable legal or technical barriers now to making educational material free. The successful use of OER 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.

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.

10.10.6 The future is yours

This is just my interpretation of how approaches to ‘open’ content and resources could radically change the way we teach and how students will learn in the future. At the start of this chapter I created a scenario which suggests how this might play out in one particular program. More importantly, there is not just one future scenario, but many. The future will be determined by a host of factors, many outside the control of instructors. But the strongest weapon we have as teachers is our own imagination and vision. Open content and open learning reflect a particular philosophy of equality and opportunity created through education. There are many different ways in which we as teachers, and even more our learners, can decide to apply that philosophy. However, the technology now offers us many more choices in making these decisions.

Over to you

This is more an opinion piece, but based on an interpretation of real developments that are taking place at the moment. I’ve tried to balance the over-hyping of MOOCs and to a lesser extent OER with an analysis of what is still more potential than reality. As with all educational initiatives, whether these developments actually lead to significant change will depend on many factors, but nevertheless I believe the potential for change is real. More importantly, the changes I have outlined here are a response to the demands of a digital age.

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A scenario that will attempt to provide a concrete vision of how these changes could play out. (I will probably place the scenario at the beginning of the chapter.)