October 31, 2014

Transforming university teaching and learning: UBC’s strategy for flexible learning

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UBC campus, Vancouver BC

UBC campus, Vancouver BC

Flexible Learning Implementation Team (2014) Flexible Learning – Charting a Strategic Vision for UBC (Vancouver Campus. Vancouver BC: Office of the Provost, University of British Columbia

The University of British Columbia is one of Canada’s premier research universities with almost 60,000 students. It usually features within the top 30 universities worldwide in university rankings.

For the last 18 months, UBC has been developing a comprehensive strategy for teaching and learning for the future, and last week issued a report on its vision and how it plans to implement that vision. Although Flexible Learning is the term UBC has chosen to describe this strategy, it is in fact far more comprehensive and wide ranging than just blended or fully online learning. It is really about the transformation of teaching and learning in response to local, regional and global changes and challenges, based on a substantial amount of prior research, internal discussion, and input from external consultants (declaration of interest: I played a very small part in some of the early discussions of strategy).

First, the breaking news, then a summary of the main points from the strategy document.

Breaking news

This really represents the first concrete actions resulting from this strategic initiative.

  1. Research report published on UBC’s first four MOOCs: These MOOCs were delivered through the Coursera platform. I will cover this report in a separate blog post.
  2. Moving from Coursera to edX: UBC has now joined edX as a Charter Member, giving it a seat on edX’s Academic Advisory Board. UBC will develop four new MOOCs for delivery on edX in 2014-2015.
  3. Revamping Continuing and Professional Education: UBC has established, within the Provost’s Office, a new unit to work in close partnership with Faculties in developing both applied and access programs. More on this and how it affects the current Division of Continuing Studies later in this post.
  4. Improving the learning technology ecosystem: basically a response to widespread faculty disenchantment with the implementation of the latest version of UBC’s LMS, Blackboard Connect.

However, these four developments are literally the tip of an iceberg, which is much larger and more significant.

The strategic vision

As always, I recommend a careful reading of the whole 22 page document, even though it is not the easiest of reads. Any summary diminishes the complexity of the discussion, because there are so many inter-related themes and developments to which the university is attempting to respond. I provide this summary though in the hope that it will spike your interest enough to make the effort, as I see this document as one of the most significant for the future of public higher education in Canada – and elsewhere.

What does the university mean by flexible learning?

From the document (p.2)

We define Flexible Learning as UBC’s response to the opportunities and challenges presented by rapid advances in information and communication technologies, informed by the results of learning research and motivated by the objectives of improving student learning, extending access to UBC and strengthening university operating effectiveness.

See below for more detail on what that actually means.

What’s driving the change?

  • learner and employer expectations: need for a flexible workforce, greater flexibility in delivery and offerings, and more emphasis on measurable outcomes
  • demographics: increased global demand, with the local population of students older and often working
  • policy of governments (generally): growing reliance on tuition revenue; a belief that online learning is cheaper
  • disruptive technologies: MOOCs, cloud, mobile, adaptive learning, automated assessment, learning analytics…..

Market segmentation

Different categories of learners:

  • traditional university students (65% of the market), younger, mainly ‘commuting': want rich campus-based learning experiences
  • convenience-driven degree-seekers: older, working, want blended/online learning
  • practitioners: seeking credentials for professional development; able to pay; under-represented to date at UBC
  • growth learners: seeking non-credentialed learning; a large and growing market segment.

All segments want more flexibility, both in delivery and range of content offerings.

Main objectives (for flexible learning)

  1. improved student learning
  2. expanded access to UBC content
  3. greater operating effectiveness

Main strategies

1. Strengthening UBC’s traditional role: through:

  • blended learning (including integration of MOOC content)
  • improving the campus experience and more personalization of learning through more modular programming
  • strategic academic program transformation

2. Revenue growth: through:

  • strategic expansion of continuing/professional education, especially applied master’s programs, certificates, badges
  • expanding access through ‘bridging’, e.g. PLA, MOOCs, summer programs

3. Academic partnerships (joining edX is one example)

Governance and management

The UBC Board and Executive approved the outline plan in 2013. Two teams were established within the Provost’s Office:

  • a leadership team, responsible for developing vision, strategy and policies, chaired by the Provost, with eight members
  • an implementation team, with another eight members, chaired by a Vice Provost.

Support is also provided by staff from the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology and from the IT Division, as well as designated contact people within each Faculty.

UBC has committed a total of $5 million ($1 million already spent) to support this initiative. (The total UBC annual operating budget is over $1 billion).

Comment

I’m watching this as someone completely outside the university. UBC is a very large and complex organization, once described by one former Provost as being managed by 12 barons all plotting to become king (although the climate is very different today). I cannot judge how far the reality of what’s happening on the ground differs from the vision, and in any case it is still very early days.

However, it is important to stress that this is a university-wide initiative (at least for the main Vancouver campus – UBC also has a semi-autonomous and much smaller campus in the interior of the province.) The strategy seems to have widespread support at the senior executive level, and a lot of momentum resulting from an infusion of significant money but more importantly as a result of widespread discussion and consultation within the university. Certainly the blended learning component is already getting a lot of traction, with some major re-designs of large undergraduate classes already in progress. How all this affects though the main body of the faculty and students at the hard edge of teaching and learning is impossible for me to judge.

The establishment of a new ‘hub’ within the Provost’s office for continuing and professional education (CPE) is particularly interesting since UBC has long had a strong and extensive Division of Continuing Studies, which offers a wide range of non-credit programming. However,

  • the ability to re-purpose existing content from credit courses into certificates, badges and non-credentialed offerings such as MOOCs,
  • the growing market for professional masters programs, especially online,
  • the increasing reconfiguration of higher education as a continuous lifelong learning escalator rather than a series of different, discrete floors (bachelors, masters, doctorates, non-credit),
  • the opportunities for revenue generation flowing directly back to the faculties,

all make essential a rethinking of the whole CPE activities of a university.

At the same time, the Division of Continuing Studies at UBC, as elsewhere, has many staff with a range of special skills and knowledge, such as

  • marketing,
  • direct access to employers and industry (often through the hiring of working professionals as part-time instructors),
  • the ability to identify and take risks with emerging content areas,
  • experience in operating in a highly market-driven, competitive cost-recovery/profit environment.

These are not attributes currently within the capacity or even interest of most academic departments. It will be an interesting challenge to see how the knowledge and experience of the Division of Continuing Studies can best be integrated with the new initiative, and how the new development in the Provost’s Office affects the operation of the Division of Continuing Studies.

Another critical factor is the appointment of a new President, who has pledged support for the strategy. However, he also said on his inauguration that the university will increase its base funding for research by at least $100-million. He did not specify though where the money would come from. I leave you to compare that to the $5 million allocated to this initiative and to judge how much impact finding another $100 million base funding for research might have on teaching and learning at UBC. I know, it’s not a zero sum game, but….

Overall, though, I find it heartening that UBC is showing such leadership and initiative in grappling with the major forces now impacting on public universities. It has a vision and a plan for teaching and learning in the future, that looks at teaching, technology, students and the changing external environment in an integrated and thoughtful manner, which in itself is a major accomplishment. It will be fascinating to see how all this actually plays out over time.

2020 Vision: Outlook for online learning in 2014 and way beyond

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 2020 visionTaking the long view

Doug Saunders in the Globe and Mail on  January 4 wrote an interesting piece on prediction, entitled: “Gadgets alone don’t make the future.” Having shown how amazingly accurate technologists in 1961 were in predicting what technologies would roll out in the future, he also showed how poorly they predicted how these gadgets would impact on our lives. In summary:

‘We are very good at guessing where our inventions might lead. We are very poor in understanding how humans might change their lives….the decision of what kind of life to live between the screens remains a political one, shaped not by our inventions but by our own decisions.’

Last year I spent some time discussing the value of predictions. One point I didn’t mention is the limitation of predicting just one year ahead, because you can’t identify the long term directions, and so often you’re driven by what happened in the very recent past, i.e. last year, because that’s the latest and often only data you have. More importantly, though, looking one year ahead assumes that there is no choice in what technologies we will use and how we will use them, because they are already entering our society. Also, this is likely to be the last year in which I make predictions for the future. I will be 75 in April, and I plan to stop all paid professional activities at that point (although I will keep my blog, but more as a journalist than as a practitioner).

So this seems to be a good point to look not just at 2014, but where we might be going five to ten years from now, and in doing this, I want to include choice or human decision-making as well as technological determinism. In other words, what kind of online learning do I expect in the future, given what I know so far?

The disappearance of online learning as a separate construct

In 2020, people won’t be talking about online learning as such. It will be so integrated with teaching and learning that it will be like talking today about whether we should use classrooms. In fact, we may be talking much more about classrooms or the campus experience in 2020, because of online learning, and how it is changing the whole way that students are learning. There is likely to be heated discussions about the role and purpose of campuses and school buildings, the design of classrooms, and who needs to be there (teachers and students) and more importantly what for, when students can do so much of their learning online – and generally prefer to, because of the flexibility, and of their control over their own learning. The big changes then are likely to be on-campus, rather than on-line.

Steelcase Node Classroom

Steelcase Node Classroom

Multi-mode delivery concentrated in fewer institutions – but more diversity

Quite a few public and smaller private post-secondary institutions will be gone or radically transformed by 2020. Particularly at risk are smaller, low status state or provincial universities and colleges or their campuses in metropolitan areas, where there is local and regional competition for students. They will have lost students to more prestigious universities and high status vocationally oriented institutions using online and flexible learning to boost their numbers. Government will be increasingly reluctant to build new campuses, looking to more flexible and more cost effective online delivery options to accommodate increasing demand. Nevertheless, politics will occasionally trump economics, with small new universities and colleges still being created in smaller towns away from the larger urban areas. Even these though will have much smaller campuses than today and probably as much as 50% of all course enrollments online, often in partnership with more established and prestigious universities through course sharing and credit transfer.

Those institutions that have survived will be offering students a range of choices of how they can access learning. Courses or programs will be deliberately designed to accommodate flexibility of access. Thus students will be able to decide whether to do all their studying on campus, all of it online, or a mix of both, although courses or programs are likely to have a common assessment strategy (see below). This will not be driven so much by academic or even political decisions, but by students voting with their feet (or mouses) to study at those institutions that provide such flexibility.

Multi-purpose, open delivery, with multiple levels of service and fees

Content will be multi-purposed, depending on a learner’s goals. Thus the same content can be part of a credit-based degree-level course, program or competency, part of a non-credit certificate or diploma, or available as open access. Learners will also be able to choose from a range of different course or program components, dependent on their needs and interests. Because most content will be open and modular, in the form of open textbooks, open multimedia resources, and open research, institutions will offer a variety of templates for courses and programs built around open content. For example, for a degree in physics, certain topics must be covered, with a strong recommendation for the sequence of study, but within those core levels of competency, there will be a variety of routes or electives towards a final degree, where broadly based learning outcomes are set, but multiple routes are offered for progress to these outcomes. Those content components can be accessed from a wide range of approved sources. It is the competency and academic performance of the learner that the institution will accredit.

Most institutions will have an open education portal, that contains not only a wide range of open educational resources, but also a range of open services, such as program templates or free academic guidance for specific target groups, as part of their enrollment strategy. Although such portals are likely to include materials from a wide range of sources from around the world, special emphasis will be given to open content developed by their own faculty, based on their latest research or scholarship, as a way of branding their institution. iTunesU, MIT’s Opencourseware, OpenLearn, and MOOCs are early prototypes, but content quality in the future will be greatly improved in terms of pedagogical and media design to accommodate online learners. Also states and provinces will also establish system-wide portals of open educational resources, particularly at the k-12 and two year college level (see eLearnPunjab and open.bccampus.ca as prototype models).

Because academic content is almost all open, free and easily accessible over the Internet, students will not pay tuition fees for content delivery, but for services such as academic guidance and learning support, and these fees will vary depending on the level of service required. Thus students who want a traditional course that covers guidance on and access to content, tutorial help, access to campus facilities, feedback and assessment will pay full fee (some of which may still be government subsidized in the public system). Students who want just open access will pay nothing, but will get few if any support services, and if they need a formal assessment, they will need to pay for this (although again this may be subsidized in a public system). Other students may want feedback and some form of continuous assessment, but will not want to pay for full tutorial support.

There are several consequences of this increased flexibility. Some institutions will specialize in small-class, on-campus education at high cost. Others will focus on high quality delivery through a variety of delivery modes, with a particular emphasis on course design and learner support. Some institutions will focus on low cost, competency-based open access programs, supported by businesses requiring specific skilled labour, and a few institutions will be specialists in fully online distance delivery operating on a national or international basis, at a lower cost but equally high quality as campus-based institutions. The majority of institutions though will become multi-purpose, multiple delivery institutions because of the economies of scale and scope possible.

Goodbye to the lecture-based course

In most institutions, courses based on three lectures a week over 13 weeks will have disappeared. There are several reasons for this. The first is that all content can be easily digitalized and made available on demand at very low cost. Second, institutions will be making greater use of dynamic video (not talking heads) for demonstration, simulations, animations, etc. Thus most content modules will be multi-media. Third, open textbooks incorporating multi media components and student activities will provide the content, organization and interpretation that are the rationale for most lectures. Lastly, and most significantly, the priority for teaching will have changed from information transmission and organization to knowledge management, where students have the responsibility for finding, analyzing, evaluating, sharing and applying knowledge, under the direction of a skilled subject expert. Project-based learning, collaborative learning and situated or experiential learning will become much more widely prevalent. Also many instructors will prefer to use the time they would have spent on a series of  lectures in providing more direct, individual and group learner support, thus bringing them into closer contact with learners.

This does not mean that lectures will disappear altogether, but they will be special events, and probably multi-media, synchronously and asynchronously delivered. Special events might include a professor’s summary of his latest research, the introduction to a course, a point mid-way through a course for taking stock and dealing with common difficulties, or the wrap-up to a course. It will provide a chance for an instructor to makes themselves known, to impart their interests and enthusiasm, and to motivate learners, but this will be just one, relatively small, but important component of a much broader learning experience for students.

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Goodbye to the written exam – and welcome to the final implementation of lifelong learning

For most post-secondary qualifications, written exams will have been replaced by assessment through multimedia portfolios of student work. These will show not only students’ current knowledge and competencies, but also their progression over time, and a range of equally important skills, such as their ability to work collaboratively, self-management of learning, and general communication skills. Assessment will be mainly on a continuous, on-going basis.

As well as change in the method of assessing learning there will be greater variety in the range of accredited qualifications. Degrees, certificates and diplomas will still be important, but these will be complemented with a wide range of assessments of informal or non-formal learning, such as badges, some offered by post-secondary institutions, others offered by employers’ organizations or co-operatives of professionals. University and college diplomas and degrees will increasingly be seen as milestones on the journey to lifelong learning, and for demographic and economic reasons, the lifelong learning market will become a much larger market than the high school leaver market.

This means academic departments will need to develop programs and courses that range from introductory or foundational through undergraduate degrees to professional masters to lifelong learning, again using similar content modules adapted to different markets, as well as creating or adapting new content, based on the latest research in a field, for these newer markets. Much of the lifelong market will lend itself to online and hybrid learning, but in different structures (short modules, for instance) than the undergraduate and higher degree market. Universities and colleges will increasingly compete with the corporate training industry for these post-postgraduate learners, who will be able and willing to afford top dollar for top-level lifelong learning opportunities, based on the latest research coming out of universities, government and businesses.

However, a large part of the lifelong learning market will become occupied by communities of practice and self-learning, through collaborative learning, sharing of knowledge and experience, and crowd-sourcing new ideas and development, particularly assisted by an evolution of what are now known as cMOOCs. Such informal learning provision will be particularly valuable for non-governmental or charitable organizations, such as the Red Cross, Greenpeace or UNICEF, or local government, looking for ways to engage communities in their areas of operation. These communities of learners will be open and free, and hence will provide a competitive alternative to the high priced lifelong learning programs being offered by research universities. This will put pressure on universities and colleges to provide more flexible arrangements for recognition of informal learning, in order to hold on to their current monopoly of post-secondary accreditation.

Image: © Etienne Wenger, 2010

Image: © Etienne Wenger, 2010

New financial models

Because most content will be freely accessible, and because students will pay incrementally for a wide variety of services, new financial models will need to be developed, to support the flexibility and range of services that students will increasingly demand and require. The biggest move is likely to be away from block funding or enrollment-driven funding by government towards pay-for-service through student fees for teaching. There will be further separation of the funding for research and teaching (this has already happened in some countries, such as in England and Wales.) As a result government financing may well change, so that students are given a post-secondary grant at the age of 17, and have the right to decide how to spend that grant on post-secondary education, rather than funding institutions directly for teaching.

This may have some unexpected benefits for academic departments. Under this model it makes much more sense to fund programs directly from fees for the program, than to pool grants and fees centrally then break out money for teaching and filter it down through the departments. Thus program fees or service fees  would come to academic departments (or more accurately the program areas) directly, then the programs would pay for university services such as registration and financial services on a direct cost basis, plus a percentage for general overheads. This is already happening in some public universities at post-graduate levels, where tuition fees for online professional masters more than cover all the costs, direct and indirect, of a program, including the cost of full-time research professors who teach on the program.

This model would also have two other benefits. It would put pressure on service departments, such as HR, financial services, the Registry, etc., to become more cost-efficient, because direct costs to programs become more transparent. Second, since online students do not need a range of campus services such as campus building maintenance, lighting, and heating, it would lead to the different costs of online vs campus-teaching becoming more transparent and comparable, with an economic incentive to move more towards the most cost-efficient delivery model.

There are also disadvantages. Some model would be needed to support more expensive programs to deliver, or programs that are specialized but important in a university community. However, a program-based financial model may help save small departments who are struggling for minimal enrolments from their local market. Online courses can open the market to regional or international students and offer the chance of collaboration and partnership with other institutions, through course and student sharing.

The disaggregation of institutional activities required for the flexible delivery of programs in a world where content is free offers opportunities for rethinking how teaching and learning is funded.

Systematic faculty development and training

Since content will be freely accessible, institutions’ reputation and branding will increasingly depend on the way they support learners. This will put much greater emphasis on instructors having good teaching skills as well as subject expertise. Thus most universities and colleges will require faculty to have assessed teaching skills before tenure or permanent appointment, and equal attention will be given to teaching expertise as research in promotion. This will mean incorporating teaching practice and methods within most post-graduate subject areas, college instructors having compulsory pre-service teacher training, and regular faculty having systematic ongoing professional development as new technologies and new teaching approaches develop over time. The immediate benefit of this will be better student retention rates and higher quality learning outcomes.

Devolved decision-making and organizational models

A move to program-based funding, the need for effective course designs to attract students, the differentiation of services, the increased professionalism in teaching, and freely available open content will result in a move to systematic program planning and team teaching. A typical team will consist of a senior research professor, several junior or adjunct professors, an instructional designer/project manager and a media/web designer. The senior faculty member, in collaboration with the other team members, will be responsible for decisions about curriculum content, methods of learner support, and assessment standards. The team will develop assessment criteria and rubrics, and where necessary hire additional instructors for learner support and marking of assessments , under the supervision of the senior faculty members.

One consequence will be the disappearance of central centres for teaching and technology, except in small institutions. Instructional design staff will be located in program areas and will be responsible with academic faculty for faculty development activities, as well as with overall course design input. There will be increased demand for media designers, while instructional designers will be in less demand in the future, but still necessary to support faculty, especially as new learning technologies develop.

Student privacy, data security and student online behaviour will become more difficult

Learning will increasingly be delivered through student-owned devices, and learners will increasingly integrate social life, work and study in a seamless manner. Services will increasingly be delivered through the cloud. Security agencies, Internet-based companies and knowledge-based companies will constantly be seeking access to student data, especially student learning performance and online behaviour, as this information will be increasingly valuable for state security and commercial reasons. As a result it will become increasingly difficult for institutions to protect student data and their privacy. This may turn out to be the biggest challenge for students, institutions, and government in the next 20 years and could seriously inhibit the development of online learning in the future, if students or faculty lose trust in the system.

The future is about choices

This is my view about where we could be going with online learning in the next five to ten years. However, I will not be making the decisions, as I am retiring in April. If you do not like this vision, then you are in a position to influence a different kind of vision. Although as McLuhan says, we are shaped by our devices, we also shape the world around these devices. The worst thing we could do is to leave it to computer scientists to decide our future.

The value such a vision lies not in its detail, but in identifying some of the key choices or decisions that will need to be made. So here are the decisions that are thrown up by this vision for the future, for students, faculty, institutions and government (and some of these, such as those about campus facilities, should be being made right now):

Students and learners

  • at this point in my life, what are my learning goals? What is the best way to meet these? Where can I get advice for this?
  • do I need a qualification and if so, what kind?
  • what is the best way for me to access this learning? On-campus; online; or a mix of both?
  • what kind of learning support do I need?
  • how much do I want to – or must I – pay for these services?
  • what institution or other method of delivery will provide what I want? Where can I get independent advice on this?
  • how can I protect my privacy when I am online studying?

Faculty and instructors

  • why do students need to come to campus? What am I offering on-campus that they couldn’t get online? Have I looked up the research on this?
  • what teaching methods will lead to the kind of learning outcomes that students will need in life?
  • what should be my role if content is freely available online?
  • what kind of teaching spaces do I need for what I want to offer on campus?
  • how should I best use my time in teaching? In what kind of teaching activities can I really make a difference for students?
  • if I create new or original content for my teaching, should I make it openly available to anyone to use?
  • what methods of assessment should I use in a digital age? How do I assess prior or informal learning?
  • what kind of courses or programs should we be offering for lifelong learners?
  • what do I need to know about student data, and the protection of student privacy?
  • what training or professional development do I need to ensure that I can meet the learning needs of my students?

Institutions

  • what kind of campus will we need in 10 years time?
  • what proportion of course enrollments are likely to be accessed off-campus?
  • what will be the best way to accommodate more students – online learning or more buildings?
  • what kind and number of teaching spaces will we need?
  • what partnerships or strategies should we adopt to protect our enrollment base?
  • what are our strategies and policies regarding open educational resources?
  • what is our strategy for lifelong learning?
  • what financial models should we put in place to encourage innovation in teaching and to attract students?
  • how do we ensure that faculty have the skills necessary for teaching in a digital age?
  • how can we best reward innovation and high quality teaching?
  • what kind of organization and staff do we need to support faculty in their teaching?
  • how do we best protect student data and privacy (as well as our staff’s) in a digital age?

Government

  • what kind of post-secondary system, in terms of institutional differentiation, program delivery and innovations in teaching, do we need in a digital age?
  • how many, and what kind of, campuses do we need when students are also studying online? What is the best way to accommodate expansion in the system?
  • how can we best support system-wide open education, to reduce costs and increase quality?
  • how should we fund post-secondary education in a digital age? How much and what should ‘first-time’ students pay for themselves? What should lifelong learners who have already been through the system pay? What funding models would encourage innovation in teaching and help improve quality?
  • how can online learning help to increase the productivity of the post-secondary educational system? What can we do to encourage this?
  • what does government need to do to protect student data and student privacy?

What’s YOUR vision?

I won’t be around to make or influence these decisions, but most of you will. Are there decisions I’ve missed? What decisions would you make? What’s your vision for the future?

If you are willing to share just one response to any of these questions or decisions, this will be very much appreciated. Because the future will be increasingly about sharing knowledge.

The World Academy Forum on the Future of Global Higher Education.

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UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley

I just came back from this conference at the University of California at Berkeley that took place between October 2-3.

The World Academy of Art and Science (WAAS) is an international non-governmental scientific organization, a world network of individual fellows elected for distinguished accomplishments in the fields of natural and social sciences, arts and the humanities. The Academy strives to promote the growth of knowledge, enhance public awareness of the social consequences and policy implications of that growth, and provide leadership in thought that leads to action. (Wikipedia)

The World University Consortium is one of the activities of WAAS. The consortium seeks to bring together innovative universities, MOOCs and technology providers with committed governments, IGOs, NGOs, and other interested stakeholders to brainstorm new ideas and creative solutions for the future of global higher education.

This was the first general meeting as part of a process to develop ideas towards a world university and  the aim of the conference was mainly to open up discussion around a very interesting question:

If you were going to develop a system to deliver the highest quality, innovative higher education to the entire world, how would you do it?

There was an interesting range of speaker/participants including:

My presentation

I was one of three speakers responding to the question: ‘What factors and forces are driving change in global higher education and where are they headed?’ My mandate was to give a quick, 10 minute overview of the main technology drivers, which I suggested were:

  • LMS-based online credit programs
  • blended/hybrid learning
  • MOOCs
  • Mobile learning
  • Virtual labs
  • Web 2.0/social media.

For each I gave a very brief ‘status report’, with where appropriate an analysis of challenges for using specific technologies in developing countries.

The presentation is unlikely to surprise any readers of this blog, but some of the data did come as a shock to some of the participants. For instance in most parts of Africa it costs US$2, the average daily income, to download one YouTube video. Also, the cheap mobile phones used in developing countries can handle only limited amounts of voice and text. Thus streaming video of lectures is not an appropriate technology for all those areas of the world without high speed Internet access, i.e. 75% of the world or more. (Some, like me, would also argue it’s not even appropriate where there is high-speed Internet access.) The need to use local, accessible technologies, the need to adapt the teaching to local cultures and needs, and the need for local partners to provide learner support, were three principles I stressed.

If you want a copy of the slides, send an e-mail (tony.bates@ubc.ca) requesting the World Academy presentation, and I will send you an invitation to download them through Dropbox.

Main takeways

I was able to attend only for the first day, so I have a limited view of the overall conference, and in particular I missed the session on the mission, goals and activities of the World University Consortium.

Nevertheless, I listed above some of the wide range of participants to indicate the bubbling turmoil that is beginning to swirl round higher education institutions. Nearly all those listed above are trying innovative approaches to post-secondary learning, and while many of these efforts will fail, fade or disappear, some are bound to stick. Others are already making a difference.

However, in my view, the vast majority of universities have yet to grasp the enormity of the changes that are taking place, or at best are aware but have no real strategy to respond.

This raises a question in my mind. How does one plan a global university if we are not even sure what a local university will or should look like in the future? My concern is that in all the talk of technology, globalization, accessibility, accountability and affordability – all incredibly important – that there is a danger that universities, in their efforts to adapt to change, fail to clearly identify what their core values are and what core benefits they provide within a democratic society. Here I am thinking of independent thinking, the ability to criticize government, industry and special interest groups, the search for logical and empirically-based knowledge, the stewardship of prior knowledge, and the creation of new knowledge.

How can these core values be maintained and strengthened, while at the same time nimbly adapting to changes in society, so that universities can deliver their core services relevantly, cost-effectively and equitably? We need universities to come forward with clear mission and value statements combined with realistic plans or strategies that take into account the changing world. I have to say that this seems more urgent than trying to find a global solution, given the vastly different needs in different parts of the world.

The BIG question

Consequently, I raised a question which did not for obvious reasons get answered:

Organizations such as Pearson, IBM, and Google have had to transform themselves or build new business models to survive in a world of rapidly changing technology. Do universities need to re-invent themselves to survive, and if so, what pragmatic advice to universities can these corporations offer?

Answers on a postcard, please.

Discussing design models for hybrid/blended learning and the impact on the campus

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 A couple of weeks ago I had an interesting meeting with about 25 instructional designers from UBC, where we discussed design models for hybrid learning, defined as a deliberate attempt to combine the best of both face-to-face and online learning.

Hybrid learning: the next big change in online learning?

Despite all the hype about MOOCs, hybrid learning is probably the most significant development in e-learning – or indeed in teaching generally – in post-secondary education, at least here in Canada. I am seeing many universities (13 in six months so far) developing plans or strategies to increase the amount of hybrid learning. The University of Ottawa for instance is aiming for 20% of all sections to be hybrid within five years (which its Board feared was ‘too timid’ a target.) UBC has just started a major development called its flexible learning initiative which aims to radically transform first and second year undergraduate teaching and reach out to new markets. Hybrid learning is a cornerstone of its strategy.

Why is this happening?

The reasons for the move vary a good deal but are often connected:

  • a desire to improve the quality of very large first and second year undergraduate teaching in large research universities, which is often delivered mainly through lectures, with relatively little meaningful or ‘deep’ interaction between instructor and at least the majority of students
  • lecture capture and ‘flipped’ classes: once a lecture is recorded, the question arises as to why students need to see it live. Flipped classes require the students to watch the recorded lecture first then come to class for discussion or other related activities
  • as instructors have increasingly used learning management systems to support their classroom teaching, there is a growing awareness among instructors that students can learn ‘some things’ just as well or better online as in class; thus instructors are more ready for a more systematic move towards hybrid learning
  • the need for more flexibility for even young, full-time students, who usually have part-time jobs and hence often have difficulties making a class when it clashes with their work.

Current hybrid models

  • flipped classrooms: this is the predominant hybrid model to date. This in fact may not mean any reduction in class time, but class time is spent differently, perhaps in discussion with either the instructor or more often with teaching assistants, reviewing content from the video lectures, or even in some cases working on problem based learning. Online activities include watching recorded video lectures (increasingly in smaller chunks than a continuous 50 minute lecture), chat or formal discusion forums, and online assessment or quizzes. This model is not without its problems. Students sometimes don’t do the online work before coming to class so are not properly prepared. There is a danger of overloading students if the online activities are merely added to their regular activities such as attending class, doing the necessary reading, etc.
  • ‘intense’ residency: this can come in a number of forms:
    • the Royal Roads University model of one semester being spent on campus (usually in the summer) while the remaining semesters are fully online
    • one week or weekend/evening face-to-face sessions for practical hands-on work, such as using labs, while the majority of the course is studied online
  • in a very few cases – but where the trend is heading – classroom time is reduced from say three ‘credit’ hours a week of lectures to one or two hours thus allowing more time both for the students to study online and perhaps equally importantly, more time for the instructors to devote to the online teaching and support
  • lastly, it is essential to mention the work of the National Center for Academic Transformation, which for nearly 15 years, under the leadership of Carol Twigg, has been working with universities and colleges in the USA to redesign large first and second year classes, to make them more cost-effective. This requires a thorough re-design of the teaching, and has shown encouraging results from the more than 120 redesigns so far undertaken. Much can be learned from this earlier work.

What’s the problem, then?

The main challenge is how to decide what is best done in class, and what online. There is a clear set of best practices and design models for fully online learning, but, other than the NCAT studies, we don’t have good models or at least well-tested models for hybrid learning.

In reviews of the literature, I could find almost no published research on the comparative ‘affordances’ of face-to-face versus online learning. In fact, I received yesterday a copy of a brand new book, called ‘Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age’, by Helen Beetham and Rhona Sharpe, that contains many excellent chapters on the design of teaching and learning with technology, but there’s nothing on how to decide what should be done face-to-face rather than online.

In fact there is so little written about this that I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a stupid question. But then I think of the students I used to see on my way to work on the 99B express bus to UBC, lolling about and falling asleep, or desperately trying to catch up on their reading on the bus, and the question has to be asked: ‘What is the university offering these students on campus that they couldn’t get from studying online?’

I’m sure there are many good answers to this question, but I’m not hearing the discussion. The assumption has generally been, ‘Campus is best,’, but is it, and if so, for what? And what models or design principles can guide us in answering those questions? This was the issue I raised at the UBC instructional design workshop a couple of weeks ago.

Brainstorming

So we did a little brainstorming. Here are some of things that were suggested in the very short time available (10 minutes or so):

Online

  • foundational knowledge (facts, principles, concepts, ideas, vocabulary, etc.)
  • certain kinds of skills such as knowledge management, knowledge navigation, independent learning, creative writing
  • some elements of clinical practice (e.g. correct procedures, video demonstrations of equipment being used, patient symptoms)

Face-to-face

  • public speaking and facilitation skills
  • consensus-building
  • decision-making
  • problem solving
  • building a closer relationship with/’humanising’ the instructor
  • body language cues from the instructor about what is really important to him/her in the course
  • practical lab skills/operating equipment

Brainstorming at UBC: (Photo: Gabriel Lascu)

I am sure with more time we would have added substantially to the list, but one thing was apparent. Many things that seem at first sight more appropriate in a face-to-face context can often be done just as well if not better online, e.g. developing critical thinking skills.

Another conclusion was that it was hard to find any general principles that would identify clear differences, and decisions needed to be embedded in the needs of specific subject domains, although there was an acceptance that you have to work harder online to make teaching more personal.

If any readers want to add their own thoughts on this, please do so

An instructional design strategy

There is an instructional design strategy that was used very successfully at the British Open University for designing for the first science courses in the early 1970s, and I also saw a similar strategy more recently being used at the Colorado Community College System to decide on what experiments should be done using remote labs and which by home kits.

The challenge in both cases is to decide which skills that are essential in a subject domain require access to ‘real’ equipment, and which can be developed through reading, observing videos, using simulations or animations, or home kits, so that the time actually spent in a lab (in the case of the Open University, in real labs at other universities in summer schools) is reduced to a minimum, whilst still achieving high academic standards in the subject area.

This means defining in advance the desired learning objectives or outcomes and then working back, using the most effective media at the least cost. What became clear early on is that foundational knowledge or content can usually be handled equally well if not better through text, video or other media, and thus these days online. It is developing skills that presents more challenges. One approach is to break down the learning outcomes as follows (the subject is hematology – the study of blood):

This requires the subject expert (possibly working with an instructional designer) having a deep understanding of the nature of the subject matter and making relatively intuitive decisions based on experience about what is best done online and what in an actual lab. However, without an instructional designer or more exposure to what is already available online (e.g. simulations), the tendency is to underestimate what can be done online. It can also be seen that the mix of face-to-face and online is likely to differ considerably between (and also within) different subject domains, because the required content and skills will be also different.

The principle of equal substitution

Even after a short time in exploring this issue, it becomes clear that many learning outcomes, from an academic perspective, can be equally well achieved either in a face-to-face or online environment. This means that other factors, such as cost, convenience, or the skills and knowledge of the instructor about online learning, the type of students, or the context of the campus, will be stronger determinants of choice than the academic demands of the subject matter.

At the same time, there are likely to be some critical areas where there is a strong academic rationale for students to learn in a face-to-face or hands-on context. This area needs to be researched more carefully, or at least be more theory-based than at present.

What about the campus?

If we accept the principle of equal substitution for many academic purposes, then this brings us back to the student on the bus question. If students can learn most things equally well (and more conveniently) online, what can we offer them on campus that will make the bus journey worthwhile? I believe that this is the real challenge that online learning presents.

It is not just a question of what teaching activities need to be done in a face-to-face class or lab, but the whole cultural and social purpose of a university. Students in many of our large, urban universities have become commuters, coming in just for their lectures, maybe using the learning commons between lectures, getting a bite to eat, then heading home. As we have ‘massified’ our universities, the broader cultural aspects have been lost.

Fall at UBC with the old library at the back (Photo: Tony Bates)

Online and hybrid learning provides a chance to re-think the role and purpose of the whole university campus, as well as what we should be doing in classrooms when students have online learning available any time and anywhere. Of course we could just close up shop and move everything online (and save a great deal of money), but we should at least explore what would be lost before doing that.

Your homework (to be done online)

I’d really be interested in your thoughts on the following questions:

  1. What academic activities really need to be done face-to-face/on campus – and why?
  2. Are there underlying principles or theory that could help us make such a distinction?
  3. Do we need to re-think the campus experience? If so how? Or should we just get rid of the campus for most academic areas?

References

Beetham, H. and Sharpe, R. (2013) Rethinking Pedagogy for Digital Age: Designing for 21st century learning, 2nd edition London/New York: Routledge

Most U.S. higher education students are also working

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© U.S. Census, American Community Survey, 2013

Davis, J. (2013) School Enrollment and Work Status: 2011 Washington DC: U.S. Census  Bureau

This is a most significant study for online learning:

  • More than half of all U.S. students in college or university are working more than 20 hours a week.
  • Almost 50% of graduate students are working full-time
  • 20% of undergraduate students are working full-time.

The U.S. is now in a position when less than half of students could be considered fullt-ime students. In other words, students who can attend campus five days a week nine-to-five, are now a minority.

For the majority of students in higher education, flexibility of access to learning is now critical for their success. For these students, one trip a week to campus is probably is as much as they can manage. Thus online learning is not now something that helps just a minority of students, but is essential for a majority of students.

Is your institution prepared for this?