October 9, 2015

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

Listen with webReader
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

Listen with webReader

 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.


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


  • 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)


  • 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?


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

Listen with webReader

© 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?

Outlook for online learning in 2013: online learning comes of age

Listen with webReader

FunTab Class 9.1 Android ICS Tablet: will 2013 be the year of the tablet?

In a previous post, I talked about the difficulties in making predictions in online learning. Bearing in mind the hazardous nature of this endeavour, here are my predictions – or perhaps better, I should say ‘forecasts’ – for online learning in 2013. The percentages are not probabilities in a statistical sense, but an estimate of the proportion of institutions in Canada that will move in these directions in 2013. Thus in (1) below, I forecast that for between 10-30% of Canadian universities and colleges, online learning starts to become a core activity affecting all its teaching areas during 2013.

The forecasts are listed in my order of importance, in terms of their likely impact on post-secondary education.

1. From the periphery to the centre: one year 10-30%; three years: 30-50%; five years: 60-80%

This is the year online learning comes of age. If we take 1995 as the first year that online learning really took off with the development of web-based online courses, then online learning becomes 18 years of age in 2013 (you get to vote in federal elections at 18 in Canada – and even drink alcohol in some provinces.).

More importantly, I see 2013 as a terrific year for online learning, where it moves from being an interesting sidebar, operating on the fringes of an institution’s core, to becoming central to an institution’s operation. In particular, online learning will not continue to be supported or housed mainly in Continuing Education or Faculty of Extension, but will start to become integrated within the core activities of faculties and academic departments. If this is so – and I will provide some evidence that this is already beginning to happen – then another set of sub-forecasts fall from this.

2. Hybrid learningone year 20-40%; three years: 40-60%; five years: 70-90%

What’s primarily going to drive this move to the centre is not MOOCs but hybrid learning, by which I mean the re-design of courses to integrate the best of online and campus-based teaching. This is being driven by dissatisfaction with very large lecture classes in first and second year university courses, the need for increased productivity/better learning in times of economic austerity, and faculty’s increasing familiarity with online learning in supporting regular lecture-based classroom teaching.

Initially in many institutions the move will be crude pedagogically, with an emphasis on video recording of lectures and flipped classes, or merely increasing the amount of online learning supporting regular classes. Over time, though, as instructors get more experience in hybrid learning, get more instructional design support, and greater pressure from the administration, full course re-design will increase, but major redesigns around hybrid learning may take as long as five years in many institutions. One reason for this slow adoption of re-design is the current lack of appropriate models for hybrid learning that have been tested and evaluated; this will change though as experience grows. Best practice for hybrid learning will emerge, as it did for fully online learning.

I see this move being quicker and more in-depth in Canada than the USA, because Canada has a large number of dual-mode institutions, i.e. institutions that for many years have had both on-campus and distance programs. Many of these institutions (and more importantly, many faculty) already have extensive experience in fully online courses, mechanisms to register, support and assess online learners, and the expertise and technical staff to facilitate a move to hybrid learning. However, the support staff are often not located within the academic departments, so some reorganization will be necessary, and this will take time.

Although the USA has a number of dual-mode institutions, especially among the land grant universities, it also has a great number of institutions that are either very new to online learning, or have outsourced or isolated online learning from the main campus activities, or even more so, some very prestigious institutions that have no online activities and are just waking up and smelling the coffee (mainly the MOOC brand). However, this slow start for many institutions may be mitigated by the tendency of US institutions to move faster and farther than Canadian institutions, once they get going. Thus Canadian institutions have a window of opportunity to become leaders in hybrid learning but it won’t be open very long.

3. A strategic institutional approach to online and flexible learning: one year 5-15%; three years: 15-25%; five years: 25-50%

I expect to see online learning increasingly appearing as strategic initiatives within institutional plans (where institutions actually have concrete plans, which is still a surprisingly small proportion). A good example of such a strategic approach is the University of Western Sydney, which has developed a detailed strategy for hybrid learning which includes the issuing of iPads to all first year students. I know at least five universities in Canada that are currently in the process of developing strategic initiatives or plans for online, hybrid or flexible learning. I know there are many more institutions out there starting to move in this direction.

There are several factors that will drive this trend during 2013:

  • political pressure, from boards and governments looking for greater productivity and innovation. Ontario is a good example.
  • MOOCs: intelligently run institutions will ask themselves the broader question of what their long-term goals and strategies are for online learning before making any significant investments in MOOCs, but boards and faculty wanting to jump into MOOCs will start forcing this question. For an excellent discussion of this issue, see Joshua Kim’s post on MOOCs, Online Learning and the Wrong Conversation; also see  What should we do about MOOCs?” – the Board of Governors discusses.
  • changing demographics: as the population gets older, so do students. In many traditional, campus-based institutions, over the next few years there will be more students over 25 years of age than under – many two year colleges already have passed this point. In other words, lifelong learners will exceed high school leavers in new admissions. Is the institution ready for this demographic change? If not, it will lose students and funding. Online learning is likely to be a key strategy for dealing with this future shock.
  • the move to hybrid learning: this will raise issues of resources, organization, and priorities – in other words, you will need a plan
  • a slow but gradual move towards more formal academic planning; deciding on the methods of delivery – such as hybrid or fully online – as well as what courses or programs to offer will fit naturally into such planning cycles and decision-making.

However, many institutions will struggle with this development in 2013. Planning is often resisted by faculty as being bureaucratic (poorly done it can be) and as restricting their academic freedom (which is nonsense, but nevertheless a reality, unless they themselves get involved.) Furthermore, there are few places to go to get help with planning for online learning (my phone number is 604…..), other than private sector companies (see outsourcing below) who have their own interests. Nevertheless developing institutional strategies for online learning will become increasingly necessary.

4. Outsourcingone year 0-10%; three years: 5-15%; five years: 15-25% (figures for Canada – double for USA)

This is a corollary of the previous three trends. I see this as more pertinent to the USA than to Canada, where most institutions have at least some resources and experience already in online learning, and also are wary of private-public partnerships. However, I do see some institutions outsourcing all or a significant part of their online learning activities to organizations such as Academic Partnerships, Pearson or its subsidiaries, or 2U. In order of probability, I list the services most likely to be outsourced:
  • 24×7 technical support
  • learning management systems
  • marketing of online courses
  • online student administration:
  • registration, assignment submission, assessment
  • learner support/tutoring
  • course design
  • all online activities as a separate unit, with fees/royalties paid to the institution

The decision to outsource will vary from smart (it’s not a core activity and they can do it better and cheaper than we can) to not so smart (panic: we’re so far behind it’s the only way we can catch up.) In the long run, if online learning moves to the core, i.e. hybrid learning, then you can’t afford all the expertise to be externally owned and controlled. However, not all online learning activities are core or unique to an institution, so I do see outsourcing increasing in 2013, sometimes even for good reasons.

5. The evolution of MOOCs: the trough of disillusionment? One year: 20-30% of institutions; three years: 5-15%; five years: 10-20% (having reaching the plateau of productivity, the rest having exited the MOOC market).

Whither MOOCs in 2013? Well, first, they are not going away. Indeed in many ways I expect activity to ramp up in 2013 as many new MOOCs now in development begin to roll out. EdX in particular will be worth watching with a number of courses due out in the spring. I will be particularly interested in their design. Will the EdX courses reflect best practice in online learning (from the past) or new features based on recent research into cognitive learning, or new features drawn solely from the information sciences – or even best, a mix of all these? Or will it be the same old, same old recorded lectures?

I suspect that towards the end of the year, MOOCs will start entering the trough of disillusionment, although I doubt if they will hit bottom until 2014, when evaluation reports start to roll in, and the universities participating decide whether the business model works for them. I think there is enough momentum though to carry them through 2013.

© The technology hype cycle: Gartner Inc, 2012

I do expect MOOCs to survive over the long term, but they will be smaller, more diverse in design and targeting, and better integrated within ‘the system’ of post-secondary education. Indeed, some, such as the current cMOOCs, will continue to exist outside or in parallel to the formal education system. MOOCs will in essence fill a niche, or rather a range of niches, and important niches at that. They will not though have as much impact on institutions as the move to hybrid learning and fully online credit programs, although MOOCs will help to open up, but only a little, many previously ‘closed’ institutions. MOOCs will provide an accessible, low-cost source of up-dating for professionals, although there will still be increased demand for qualifications from lifelong learners through credit programming. MOOCs though, at least as we know them, will not solve the challenge of providing high quality, effective education to the billions in developing countries who most need it, because of language, lack of Internet access, and materials that are inappropriate for their learning needs.

The biggest impact of MOOCs from an institutional perspective in North America is likely to be on continuing education departments, many of whom for survival have relied on income from fees for their mainly non-credit courses. MOOCs will not destroy that market but will cause a lot of financial problems for these departments, especially where they have been offering non-credit online courses at a high fee. The response I think will be for many universities to charge a small fee for participation, and a larger fee for assessment, which will have a dramatic downward impact on numbers enrolling for MOOCs. Other institutions (or in particular instructors) will cap numbers (turning them into SOOCs – small open online courses) and run them in parallel with their credit courses, and some institutions may even offer credit to ‘open’ students who successfully complete such ‘capped’ courses, even if such students were not previously admitted to the university. (See University of Maine PI as an example). I also see some two-year colleges developing MOOCs, although they already have competition from providers such as Alison. Open universities are also likely to be impacted, but not as much as one might think, because they offer credit programs, and have in some cases been leaders in offering open educational resources (e.g. the UK Open University’s OpenLearn).

Lastly, we are likely to see some real innovation in online learning design in MOOCs. There is less risk in getting things wrong in a ‘free’ course, so more to be gained by an instructor in taking a risk, and the challenge of handling very large numbers requires innovation in software and design approaches, and a chance at getting large data sets and statistically significant results with the very large numbers involved (and no ethics committee to go through, in many cases.). The successful innovations will in most cases easily transfer over to credit online courses, so everyone will benefit.

At the same time, sadly many instructors will go on delivering video lectures, and will get away with it because of their research reputation or the brand name of the institution to which they are (often nominally) attached. However, MOOCs could and should be much more than this.

6. Open text books: One year: 25-35%: Three years: 45-55%; Five years: 90-95% 

From a tiny seed a forest grows. In 2012 the provincial government of British Columbia announced an open text book scheme. In essence, it is asking BC institutions to come forward with proposals for developing open text books for large enrollment courses, such as Psychology 100. The program is modelled on a similar program from the state of California. The idea is that the text once developed will be available for free for all students taking Psychology 100 across the province, although it will be left to individual instructors to decide whether or not to use the open textbook or other commercially available textbooks.

This is an incredibly smart political and educational move, for several reasons:
  • Post-secondary students in BC are currently spending on average over $700 a year on text books. This will reduce their costs dramatically, and the government gets the credit
  • Secondly, at least in the case of BC, it doesn’t cost the government any new money. It already had a modest annual online course development fund of $750,000, managed by BCCampus, which will now be used to develop the textbooks.
  • Third, if you are developing an online textbook, it makes a lot of sense to include student activities, video clips, OER animations or simulations, etc. In other words, you not only get a textbook, but a wrap-around course. Individual instructors can add, amend or remove not only content but also the wrap-around material, so they can individualize parts of a course without having to redesign the whole thing – AND they get a feeling of ownership that way
  • If, as I hope, two of the leading research universities, such as UBC and the University of Victoria or Simon Fraser University, were to get together, they could ensure that the text book would cover at least 50% of the students enrolled in that level of course in the province, and would put enormous pressure on the other universities to follow suit. If they were to partner with universities in other provinces, the costs of developing such wrap-around courses would come down dramatically for each institution. Thus this has the potential for scaling up dramatically.

If I was a betting man, I think this is the place where the OER movement will end up. It provides the means to combine open content, pedagogy, delivery, course individualization, student cost savings, and economies of scale. What’s not to like about this (unless you’re a commercial publisher?). Indeed, there are only two things that can really stop this from taking off: faculty intransigence (not invented here; interferes with my academic freedom); and political lobbying by publishers, which I don’t underestimate.

7. The year of the tablet? One year: 10-15%: Three years: 20-25%; Five years: 40-50% 

Of all the predictions, this is the one where I have least certainty. Logically, tablet use should grow in 2013. It’s the obvious way to store and access textbooks, they provide any time anywhere access to learning, they are more portable and cheaper than laptops, and they could provide extraordinary interactivity with learning materials. Perhaps even more importantly in the long run, students can use tablets for collecting multimedia in-the-field evidence, and for creating multimedia demonstrations of their learning. One or two universities are already giving all first year students a free tablet, such as the University of Western Sydney.

However, there are many reasons why this is going to be slow progress in 2013:

  • first, at least in North America, they are still too expensive. They need, like the Aakash 2 in India, to come down in price below $100. More significantly in Canada, roaming costs are still too high, as soon as you step outside the campus. If we can pre-load online courses and open textbooks, then a higher tablet price might be acceptable, but the roaming charges are a killer
  • no-one’s designing courses for tablets, but until we do, we won’t get the true affordances of the technology. It is simply not sufficient just to transfer over courses designed around a learning management system. The extra cost to the student cannot be justified. If, however, we started designing courses around the affordances of the technology, and in particular if we have tablets that enable the creation and adaptation of multimedia materials by the student, then their use could be better justified
  • tablets are still better at publishing and distribution than the creation of materials, although they are getting better. Indeed a lot of thinking suggests that they are complementary to rather than a replacement for laptops. If that is true, then tablets remain too expensive for education on a large scale
  • you need an institutional strategy for blended and online learning into which the use of tablets can be fitted; one-off experiments in individual courses or even programs will be hard to justify
  • the technology is still evolving rapidly, so what first year students get this year could easily be obsolete by the time they get to their fourth year.

So there are too many uncertainties to be confident about tablets taking off this year in post-secondary education, although I do believe their time will come.

8. Flexible course design (FCD) One year: 10-15%: Three years: 20-25%; Five years: 40-50% 

We are now getting much more into speculation than evidence-based forecasting, so treat this as very tentative.

I see FCD as being somewhere in between the full, ADDIE-type instructional design model, and the complete lack of pedagogy in video lecture-based online and hybrid learning. It will be developed in response to VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environments, which is a pretty good description of online learning these days.

I see FCD as being different from rapid instructional design (RID), although it shares some commonality. The focus in FCD is not so much to reduce the cost of course design, by shortening the process (as in RID), but to enshrine core pedagogical principles while responding to a constantly changing academic, technological and organizational context. FCD also tends to be more constructivist in its approach compared with the more behaviourist approach often found in RID. In particular, FCD will increasingly focus on the design and integration of learner-directed activities, such as project work and multimedia assignments, which cannot be easily controlled or specified in detail or in advance, and to integrating new and educationally relevant technologies as they become available. FCD will also not fight traditional teaching methods applied to online learning, but will work with faculty to gradually modify their practices to a more pedagogically sound approach over a period of time.

9. International


Watch Mexico. Mexico waxes and wains in online learning. For many years, Tec de Monterrey (private), Universidad de Guadalajara (public), and a number of other universities have had successful online programs, but these have reached less than 5% of post-secondary learners. However, the new President has promised a national online virtual university, and more significantly, has promised to open up Mexico’s telecommunications industry to more competition. The latter should result in the cost of Internet access declining rapidly from its very high current level, opening up a huge market for online learning, as currently less than 30% of the population have Internet access at home. I see 2013 as a year when the foundations are solidified for a rapid growth in online learning in subsequent years.

Asia (especially India)

Asia already has massive numbers of online learners, particularly in South Korea, Malaysia and China. India now has the Aakash 2 tablet, and a strategy for online science teaching through the Indian Institues of Technology, and is likely to expand its online teaching rapidly, although lack of infrastructure and Internet access remain huge barriers. However, the government of India is putting in place a national high speed network connecting the major universities and colleges. India also has a thriving e-learning service and course design industry, mainly focused to date on international and business services but which will be able to ramp up online learning in India very quickly as Internet access improves, mainly through university and college campuses also being opened up for off-campus students requiring online access. In terms of sheer numbers, then, India will continue to develop and evolve its e-learning activities.

10. Expect the unexpected: One year: 100%; Three years: 100%; Five years: 100%

These are the monsters lurking in the shadows. In online learning, the only thing you can really be certain of is the uncertainty. These are Donald Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns, so by definition they are unpredictable or non-forecastable.

However, there are also some known unknowns that perhaps we should discuss. (MOOCs are good examples – they were known in 2011, but the likelihood that they would take off in 2012 in the way they did was not known, at least by most pundits.) Here are some possible bogeymen to lie awake worrying about:

  • the privatization of post-secondary education in the USA. Many states are in dire financial trouble. Will this result in some states privatizing their public post-secondary education systems? What price would Alabama State University fetch from a commercial buyer and how would that affect the state’s finances? If some states do decide on privatization, expect online learning to increase – indeed, online learning will likely increase in financially challenged states without privatization, because, rightly or wrongly, it will be seen as cheaper; also expect federal student financial aid to take a hit in the USA as Congress grapples with the deficit.
  • a major Internet player (Apple, Google, Facebook or Amazon) jumps into the online learning market, perhaps in partnership with some elite universities, and takes a major share of the for-credit online market, because of lower costs, quality content, and accreditation from elite universities (but with a different category of degree from their on-campus programs)
  • The US Congress backs publishers and shuts down all publicly funded open educational resources; copyright legislation is tightened on US-based Internet companies making it all but impossible to use educational resources over the Internet for free
  • major power shortages/outages, due to bad weather/a surge in energy prices/political activists (pick your reason) makes online delivery increasingly unreliable during winter
  • quantum computing arrives at a reasonable cost and completely changes the game.

You could have fun adding to this list, but you get my point. There’s not much we can do about even the expected, never mind the unexpected, so really there’s no point worrying about it until it happens.

We’re in charge: creating our own future

First, you will note that I am more of a fox than a hedgehog. Most of these forecasts are a continuation of existing developments rather than startling new advances in online learning. Also the future is not going to be delivered to us; we need to create it ourselves. This means post-secondary institutions thinking through the role and purpose of online learning very carefully, rather than being driven by external and often hostile forces. However, post-secondary education is a slow moving machine, and change takes time.

Overall, though, you can see I am starting 2013 much more optimistically than for many years. Online learning will come of age, will become a central, core activity in most universities, will be strategically planned and managed, pedagogy will become more important, and learning as a result will become deeper, richer and more flexibly accessible. If all that happens in 2013, I will be more than pleased.

May your 2013 be as good as this if not better.

Now, given that more heads are better than one in forecasting, where do you see online learning going in 2013?

Why predicting online learning developments is risky but necessary

Listen with webReader

A probabilistic approach to prediction is wise

Before drawing up my outlook for 2013, I want to discuss the important topic of prediction in online learning, in particular how predictions are made, and what value they may have. Nate Silver’s excellent book (references are at the end of this article) looks at prediction in a number of fields: weather forecasting (excellent up to three days, useless after eight days), economic forecasting (hopeless by both media pundits and professional economists), baseball players’ performance (pretty good and improving), earthquakes (bad for major quakes, but promising for lesser quakes), poker and a number of other areas. He also has some interesting reflections on big data as well. Unfortunately though he doesn’t discuss prediction in online learning, so I’ll try and help out with this!

Factors associated with reliable predictions

Silver’s book is valuable because he sets out some of the factors associated with good prediction (or forecasting):

  1. Well understood and empirically supported theory about what drives the field under inquiry (excellent in weather forecasting and earthquakes; poor in politics and economics)
  2. Large, reliable sets of relevant data and the ability to crunch large data sets
  3. Relatively stable movement within the data (i.e. not too much ‘noise’ or randomness)
  4. Elimination of or accounting for as far as possible the unknown
  5. Above all, a probabilistic approach to prediction that takes account of uncertainty.

Factors associated with online learning

The problem for online learning is that few of these factors exist. In terms of theory, we do have some some empirically supported theories about what makes for effective online learning (e.g. Linda Harasim’s Learning Theory and Online Technologies) and some standards for best practices. However, these are often not practiced, or are ignored, in the field of online learning, and more importantly we lack good, empirically based theories of organizational decision-making in post-secondary education. This makes the application of what theory we have to understanding data and looking for the signal in the noise particularly hazardous for online learning.

The situation is even worse with regards to data. Weather forecasting data is detailed, localized and goes back over 60 years. Online learning is itself barely 20 years old (at least as we now know it), and is continually changing (as is the weather of course, but at least meteorologists know why the weather changes).

We have very little data on what is actually happening in online learning, and over-reporting in some areas (e.g. MOOCs) and under-reporting in others (for-credit programs). We are almost entirely dependent on the Sloan/Babson annual surveys for online learning enrollments and the Kenneth Green survey for IT developments on campuses, both covering just the USA. These surveys are invaluable, especially because they use a consistent methodology from year to year, enabling comparisons to be made, but they depend on the voluntary participation of selected staff within institutions, which tends to provide a bias to over-reporting online activities. In Canada, we have nothing, except a 2010 survey in Ontario which is unlikely to be repeated. So the statistical basis for reliable prediction in online learning just isn’t there.

With regard to ‘unknowns’ in online learning, they are everywhere but of course not visible until they hit you. MOOCs are a good example of something suddenly jumping out of the bush at you. But we have had other scares as well, such as for-profit universities. And some of the scares or unknowns quickly become very real in online learning, while others disappear almost as quickly as they came.

Fairy stories are perhaps a better basis for understanding online learning than scientific prediction. This is how I see MOOCs

The last factor though, a more probabilistic approach, is one we can apply to online learning. Silver makes the distinction between hedgehogs – pundits who have a strong view on everything, a ‘biased’ or strong ideological position, and who tend to make statements with a high degree of certainty, but who are frequently and routinely completely wrong- and foxes, who tend to be more cautious in their statements, are more equivocal in their predictions, but in the long haul have a better track record of accurate predictions. Foxes take a more probabilistic approach, recognizing degrees of uncertainty in their predictions (not necessarily in mathematical terms).

Timing as a factor in online learning predictions

A particular problem with prediction in online learning is the timing. The Horizon reports deal with this by having one, three and five year projections which is a more probabilistic approach, but I would argue it is more of a hedgehog than a fox because it focuses mainly on technology and not on pedagogy, and usually does not hedge its bets. Jon Baggaley, in a forthcoming analysis of the Horizon reports, also shows how unreliable their predictions have been.

In online learning, technology moves faster than people, and people move faster than organizations. So where you see changes in individuals, it may be another 10 years before that filters through to true organizational adoption. Also when does a prediction become true? Let’s take hybrid learning. Does 100 instructors moving to hybrid learning constitute a ‘trend’? However, if 100 institutions move in that direction within a year, that would be more significant. So as well as timing, the level of analysis matters too.

Why prediction in online learning is still necessary

Audrey Watters, who is my favourite blogger on online learning and educational technology, has also read Nate Silver’s book, and is aware of many of the problems I have just laid out. For these reasons, she has decided not to make any predictions for 2013. She is no doubt wiser than me, but I think it’s a pity she’s opting out. She is in a much better position than most of us to make predictions about online learning because she has a very broad overview, a full picture, of what is going on, even if the details are not always clear.

The fact is, we have to make predictions, every day in our lives – is it going to rain (so I take an umbrella), will the stock market go down (so I won’t invest $5,000), will my house still have enough equity when I need to go into an old folk’s home (yes, so I’ll go on holiday this year), will my bosses want to do MOOCs (yes, so I’d better be prepared)? And we always have to make these predictions with biases, less than perfect data, and lots of nasty unknowns lurking in the garden.

Silver’s book in fact does not argue against predictions, but doing them as well as possible. You do the best you can, and take a probabilistic approach. (If I don’t use the umbrella, and it doesn’t rain, no big deal, I’ll wait two months before reconsidering my investment, I’ll chose a budget holiday, I’ll suggest a way to do MOOCs that enhances their quality). We will all have to make some predictions, some intelligent guesses, as to what’s going to happen in online learning this year, so we can at least be prepared.

Go for it, baby

I will be making some predictions, not because I have all the data I’d like (you never do, even in meteorology). I also have my biases and prejudices. However, I do have a lot of experience in online learning, which provides at least some sort of theoretical framework for analysis, I do get to see what’s happening in about 10-15 universities and colleges a year (not enough but more than many), I do read a lot of the research literature on online learning, and I cover a huge amount of news and developments for my blog. So you decide whether or not my predictions are likely to be better than yours. At least you can make a comparison. (Silver points out that the average of multiple sources of predictions is usually more accurate than single sources of prediction, so let’s all share).

So, yes, you will get an outlook for 2013 for online learning from me. I will make some firm predictions, but I will use a one to five year horizon, and there will be caveats, and the unknowns will still jump out at you during the year – but at least you’ll have an umbrella to fend them off, and you can then blame me if it all goes wrong.

Silver, N. (2012) The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – but Some Don’t New York: The Penguin Press

Watters, A. (2013) Why I’m not making Ed-Tech predictions for 2013 Hack Education, January 1

Baggaley, J. (in press) Shifting Horizons, Distance Education