October 9, 2015

Ensuring quality teaching in a digital age: key takeaways

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Building the foundations of quality teaching and learning

Building the foundations of quality teaching and learning

I have now completed and published Chapter 11, ‘Ensuring quality teaching in a digital age‘, for my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.’

Unlike earlier chapters, I have not published this as a series of blog posts, as it is based on an earlier set of blog posts called: ‘Nine steps to quality online learning.’

However, there are some substantial changes. The focus here is as much on applying basic principles of course design to face-to-face and blended/hybrid learning as to fully online course design.

More importantly, this chapter attempts to pull together all the principles from all previous ten chapters into a set of practical steps towards the design of quality teaching in a digital age.

Purpose of the chapter

When you have read this chapter, and in conjunction with what has been learned in previous chapters, you should be able to:

  • define quality in terms of teaching in a digital age
  • determine what your preferred approaches are to teaching and learning
  • decide what mode of delivery is most appropriate for any course you are responsible for
  • understand why teamwork is essential for effective teaching in a digital age
  • make best use of existing resources for any course
  • choose and use the right technology and tools to support your learning
  • set appropriate learning goals for teaching in a digital age
  • design an appropriate course structure and set of learning activities
  • know when and how to communicate with learners
  • evaluate your teaching, make necessary improvements, and improve your teaching through further innovation.

What is covered in this chapter

Key takeaways

1. For the purposes of this book, quality is defined as: teaching methods that successfully help learners develop the knowledge and skills they will require in a digital age.

2. Formal national and institutional quality assurance processes do not guarantee quality teaching and learning. In particular, they focus on past ‘best’ practices, processes to be done before actual teaching, and often ignore the affective, emotional or personal aspects of learning. Nor do they focus particularly on the needs of learners in a digital age.

3. New technologies and the needs of learners in a digital age require a re-thinking of traditional campus-based teaching, especially where it is has been based mainly on the transmission of knowledge. This means re-assessing the way you teach and determining how you would really like to teach in a digital age. This requires imagination and vision rather than technical expertise.

4. It is important to determine the most appropriate mode of delivery, based on teaching philosophy, the needs of students, the demands of the discipline, and the resources available.

5. It is best to work in a team. Blended and especially fully online learning require a range of skills that most instructors are unlikely to have. Good course design not only enables students to learn better but also controls teacher and instructor workload. Courses look better with good graphic and web design and professional video production. Specialist technical help frees up teachers and instructors to concentrate on the knowledge and skills that students need to develop.

6. Full use should be made of existing resources, including institutionally-supported learning technologies, open educational resources, learning technology staff, and the experience of your colleagues.

7. The main technologies you will be using should be mastered, so you are professional and knowledgeable about their strengths and weaknesses for teaching.

8. Learning goals that are appropriate for learners in a digital age need to be clearly defined. The skills students need should be embedded within their subject domain, and these skills should be formally assessed.

9. A coherent and clearly communicable structure, and learning activities for a course, should be developed that are manageable in terms of workload for both students and instructor.

10. Regular and on-going instructor/teacher presence, especially when students are studying partly or wholly online, is essential for student success. This means effective communication between teacher/instructor and students. It is particularly important to encourage inter-student communication, either face-to-face or online.

11. The extent to which the new learning goals of re-designed courses aimed at developing the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age have been achieved should be carefully evaluated and ways in which the course could be improved should be identified.

Over to you

Although the previous blog posts on nine steps to quality online learning were well received (they have been used in some post-secondary education courses) feedback on this revised book version will be much appreciated.  I haven’t seen anything similar that tries to integrate basic principles across all three modes of delivery, so I am especially interested to see how these are perceived in terms of regular classroom and blended learning.

Up next

The final chapter, which will take a brief look at the institutional policies and strategies needed to support teachers and instructors wanting to teach well in a digital age. It will deal explicitly with what we should expect (and more importantly, not expect) of teachers and instructors, issues around faculty development and teacher training, working methods for teachers and instructors, and learning technology support.

I aim to finish this (and the whole book, at least in first draft form) by March 14. French and Spanish translations are already under way.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

10.10.1 Nearly all content will be free and open

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

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

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

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

10.2.2 Modularisation


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

10.10.3 Disaggregation of services


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

10.10.4 ‘Open’ course designs

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

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

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

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

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

10.10.5 Conclusions

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

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

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

Lastly, there are no insurmountable legal or technical barriers now to making educational material free. The successful use of OER does though require a particular mindset among both copyright holders – i.e. the creators of materials – and users – i.e. teachers and instructors who could use this material in their teaching. Thus the main challenge is one of cultural change.

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

10.10.6 The future is yours

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

Over to you

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

I will be very interested in your response to this post


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


‘Agile’ Design: Flexible designs for the digital age

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Zen Yoga Chair: Image © Best Interior and Architecture,

Zen Yoga Chair: Image © Best Interior and Architecture

Before I was rudely interrupted by MOOCs, I had almost finished my chapter on Models for Designing Teaching and Learning for my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.‘ I have now finished the last of the design models, which I have called ‘Agile Design’ because it is a new and as yet unestablished approach to course design.

I have to admit going out on a limb with this particular section, because I couldn’t really find any prior literature that adequately describes this approach, and there are elements of other design models that appear in ‘Agile’ design, but I have seen a few examples of it and they are clearly different from other approaches to course design. All this means that I’m really looking for feedback and advice, so here goes.

Scenario E: ETEC 522: Ventures in e-Learning

Mike: Hey, George, come and sit down and tell Allison and Rav about that weird course you’re taking from UBC.

George: Hi, you two. Yeah, it’s a great course, very different from any other I’ve taken.

Rav.: What’s it about?

George: It’s how to go about starting up a technology company.

Allison: But I thought you were doing a masters in education.

George: Yeah, I am. This course is looking at how new technologies can be used in education and how to build a business around one of these technologies.

Mike: Really, George? So what about all your socialist principles, the importance of public education, and all that? Are you giving up and going to become a fat capitalist?

George: No, it’s not like that. What the course is really making me do is think about how we could be using technology better in school or college.

Mike: And how to make a profit out of it, by the sound of it.

Rav.: Shut up, Mike – I’m curious, George, since I’m doing a real business program. You’re going to learn how to set up a business in 13 weeks? Gimme a break.

George: It’s more about becoming an entrepreneur – someone who takes risks and tries something different.

Mike.: With someone else’s money.

George: Do you really want to know about this course, or are you just wanting to give me a hard time?

Allison: Yes, shut up, Mike. Have you chosen a technology yet, George?

George: Almost. We spend most of the course researching and analysing emerging technologies that could have an application in education. We have to find a technology, research it then come up with a plan of how it could be used in education, and how a business could be built around it. But I think the real aim is to get us to think about how technology could improve or change teaching or learning..

Rav.: So what’s the technology you’ve chosen?

George: You’re jumping too far ahead, Rav. We go through two boot camps, one on analysing the edtech marketplace, and one on entrepreneurship: what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Why are you laughing, Mike?

Mike: I just can’t see you in combat uniform, crawling through tubes under gun fire, with a book in your hand.

George: Not that kind of bootcamp. This course is totally online. Our instructor points us in the direction of a few technologies to get us started, but because there’s more stuff coming out all the time, we’re encouraged to make our own choices about what to research. And we all help each other. I must have looked at more than 50 products or services so far, and we all share our analyses. I’m down to possibly three at the moment, but I’m going to have to make my mind up soon, as I have to do a YouTube elevator pitch for my grade.

Rav.: A what?

George: If you look at most of these products, there’s a short YouTube video that pitches the business. I’ve got to make the case for whatever technology I choose in just under eight minutes. That’s going to be 25% of my grade.

Allison: Wow, that’s tough.

George: Well, we all help each other. We have to do a preliminary recording, then everyone pitches in to critique it. Then we have a few days to send in our final version.

Allison: What else do you get grades for?

George: I got 25% of my marks for an assignment that analysed a particular product called Dybuster which is used to help learners with dyslexia. I looked mainly at its educational strengths and weaknesses, and its likely commercial viability. For my second assignment, also worth 25%, we had to build an application of a particular product or service, in my case a module of teaching using a particular product. There were four of us altogether working as  a team to do this. Our team designed a short instructional module that showed a chemical reaction, using an off-the-shelf online simulation tool that is free for people to use. I’ll get my last 25% from an e-portfolio where I’ve collected together my contributions to helping other students on the course with their projects.

Allison: But what I don’t understand is: what’s the curriculum? What text books do you have to read? What do you have to know?

George: Well, there isn’t a set curriculum, except for the two boot camps, and they only take a week each. I’ve already learned a lot, just by searching and analysing different products over the Internet. We have to think about and justify our decisions. What kind of teaching philosophy do they imply? What criteria am I using when I support or reject a particular product? Is this a sustainable tool? I don’t want to have to get rid of good teaching material because the company’s gone bust and doesn’t support the technology I’m using any more. What I’m really learning though is to think about technology differently. Previously I wasn’t really thinking about teaching differently. I was just trying to find a technology that made my life easier. But this course has woken me up to the real possibilities. I feel I’m in a much better position now to shake up my own school and move them into the digital age.

Allison (sighs): Well, I guess that’s the difference between an undergraduate and a graduate course. You couldn’t do this unless you already knew a lot about education, could you?

George: I’m not so sure about that, Allison. It doesn’t seem to have stopped a lot of entrepreneurs from developing tools for teaching!

Mike: George, I’m sorry. I can’t wait for you to become a rich capitalist – it’s your turn to buy the drinks.

Scenario based on a UBC graduate course for the Master in Educational Technology.

The instructors are David Vogt and David Porter, assisted by Jeff Miller, the instructional designer for the course.

6.8.1 Why the need for more flexible design models?

Adamson (2012) states:

The systems under which the world operates and the ways that individual businesses operate are vast and complex – interconnected to the point of confusion and uncertainty. The linear process of cause and effect becomes increasingly irrelevant, and it is necessary for knowledge workers to begin thinking in new ways and exploring new solutions.

In particular knowledge workers must deal with situations and contexts that are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (what Adamson calls a VUCA environment). This certainly applies to teachers working with ever new, emerging technologies, very diverse students, and a rapidly changing external world that puts pressure on institutions to change.

If we look at course design, how does a teacher respond to rapidly developing new content, new technologies or apps being launched on a daily basis, to a constantly changing student base, to pressure to develop the knowledge and skills that are needed in a digital age? For instance, even setting prior learning outcomes is fraught in a VUCA environment, unless you set them at an abstract ‘skill’ level such as thinking flexibly, networking, and information retrieval and analysis. Students need to develop the key knowledge management skills of knowing where to find relevant information, how to assess, evaluate and appropriately apply such information. This means exposing them to less than certain knowledge and providing them with the skills, practice and feedback to assess and evaluate such knowledge, then apply that to solving real world problems.

In order to do this, learning environments need to be created that are rich and constantly changing, but which at the same time enable students to develop and practice the skills and acquire the knowledge they will need in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.

6.8.2 Core features of flexible design models

Describing the design features is a challenge, for two reasons. First, there is no single approach to flexible design. The whole point of a flexible design is to be adaptable to the circumstances in which it operates. Second, it is only with the development of light, easy to use technology and media in the last few years that instructors and course designers have started to break away from the standard design models, so flexible designs are still emerging.

First, it is important to distinguish this approach from rapid instructional design (Meier, 2000) or rapid prototyping, which are really both streamlined versions of the ADDIE model. Although rapid instructional design/rapid protyping enable courses or modules to be designed more quickly (especially important for corporate training), they still follow the same kind of sequential or iterative processes as in the ADDIE model, but in a more compressed form. Rapid instructional design and rapid prototyping might be considered particular kinds of flexible design, but they lack some of the most important characteristics outlined below:

  • Light and nimble: if ADDIE is a 100-piece orchestra, with a complex score and long rehearsals, then flexible design models are a jazz trio who get together for a single performance then break up until the next time. Although there may be a short preparation time before the course starts, most of the decisions about what will go into the course, what tools will be used, what activities learners will do, and sometimes even how students will be assessed, are decided as the course progresses. On the teaching side, there are usually only a few people involved in the actual design, one or sometimes two instructors and possibly an instructional designer, who nevertheless meet frequently during the offering of the course to make decisions based on feedback from learners and how learners are progressing through the course. However, many more content contributors may be invited – or spontaneously offer – to participate on a single occasion as the course progresses.
  • Content, learner activities, tools used and assessment vary, according to the changing environment. The content to be covered in a course is likely to be highly flexible, based more on emerging knowledge and the interests or prior experience of the learners, although the core skills that the course aims to develop are more likely to remain constant. For instance, for ETEC 522, the overall objective is to develop the skills needed to be a pioneer or innovator in education, and this remains constant over each iteration of the course. However, because the technology is rapidly developing with new products, apps and services every year, the content of the course is quite different from year to year. Also learner activities and methods of assessment are also likely to change, because students can use new tools or technology themselves for learning as they become available. Very often learners themselves seek out and organise much of the core content of the course and are free to choose what tools they use.
  • The design attempts to exploit the affordances of either existing or emerging technologies. Flexible design aims to exploit fully the educational potential of new tools or software, which means sometimes changing at least sub-goals. This may mean developing different skills in learners from year to year, as the technology changes and allows new things to be done. The emphasis here is not so much on doing the same thing better with new technology, but striving for new and different outcomes that are more relevant in a digital world. ETEC 522 for instance did not start with a learning management system. Instead,  a web site, built in WordPress, was used as the starting point for student activities, because students as well as instructors were posting content, but in another year the content focus of the course was mainly on mobile learning, so apps and other mobile tools were strong components of the course.
  • Sound, pedagogical principles guide the overall design of a course – to a point. Just as most successful jazz trios work within a shared framework of melody, rhythm, and musical composition, so is flexible design shaped by overarching principles of best practice. Most successful flexible designs have been guided by core design principles associated with ‘good’ teaching, such as clear learning outcomes or goals, assessment linked to these goals, strong learner support, including timely and individualised feedback, active learning, collaborative learning, and regular course maintenance based on learner feedback, all within a rich learning environment. Sometimes though deliberate attempts are made to move away from an established best practice for experimental reasons, but usually on a small scale, to see if the experiment works without risking the whole course..
  • Experiential, open and applied learning. Usually this kind of course design is strongly embedded in the real, external world. Much or all the course may be open to other than registered students. For instance, a good deal of ETEC 522, such as the final YouTube business pitches, is openly available to those interested in the topics. Sometimes this results in entrepreneurs contacting the course with suggestions for new tools or services, or just to share experience. Another example is a course on Latin American studies from a Canadian university. This particular course had an open, student-managed wiki, where they could discuss contemporary events as they arose. This course was active at the same time that the Argentine government nationalised the Spanish oil company, Repsol. Several students posted comments critical of the government action, but after a week, a professor from a university in Argentina, who had come across the wiki by accident while searching the Internet, responded, laying out a detailed defence of the government’s policy. This was then made a formal topic for discussion within the course. Such courses may though be only partially open. Discussion of sensitive subjects for instance may still take place behind a password controlled discussion forum, while other parts of the course may be open to all.

As experience grows in this kind of design, other and perhaps clearer design principles are likely to emerge.

Strengths and weaknesses of flexible design models

The main advantage of flexible design is that it focuses directly on preparing students for a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. It aims explicitly at helping students develop many of the specific skills they will need in a digital age, such as knowledge management, multimedia communications skills, critical thinking, innovation, and digital literacy embedded within a subject domain. Where flexible design has been successfully used, students have found the design approach highly stimulating and great fun, and instructors have been invigorated and enthused with their teaching. Flexible design enables courses to be developed and offered quickly and at much lower initial cost than ADDIE-based approaches.

However, flexible design approaches are very new and have not really been much written about, never mind evaluated. There is no ‘school’ or set of agreed principles to follow. (Maybe it needs a catchy name, which is why, somewhat tongue in cheek, I originally entitled the post/chapter: ‘Flash Design.’ However, thanks to Antonio Dias de Figueiredo’s comment below, I think ‘agile’ design is a better term.) The flexible design model though is not however the same as rapid instructional design (Meier, 2000) which is really a boiled down version of the ADDIE approach, but it could be argued that most of the things in flexible design are covered in other teaching models, such as discovery and/or experiential learning. Despite this, innovative instructors are beginning to develop courses such as ETEC 522 and there is a consistency in the basic design principles that give them a certain coherence and shape, even though each course or program appears on the surface to be very different (another example of flexible design, but with quite a different overall program from ETEC 522, is the Integrated Science program at McMaster University.)

Certainly flexible design approaches require confident instructors willing to take a risk, and success is heavily dependent on instructors having a good background in best teaching practices and/or strong instructional design support from innovative and creative instructional designers. Because of the relative lack of experience in such design approaches the limitations are not well identified yet. For instance, this approach can work well with relatively small class sizes but how well will it scale? Successful use probably also depends on learners already having a good foundational knowledge base in the subject domain. Nevertheless I expect more flexible designs for learning to grow over the coming years, because they are more likely to meet the needs of a VUCA world.

Over to you

What I really need here are more examples of flexible learning design. Do you know a course that meets these five design principles? If so please let me know (and a link to the course or course materials would be really appreciated). I would expect that some courses built around open educational resources might reflect this model, for instance.

Now for some more specific questions:

1. Is this design model truly different from others or is it just a variation on other design models? If so which?

2. If you have experience of teaching in this way, can you add to the strengths or weaknesses of this approach and also provide  a short description of the how the course is designed?

3. Do you think an ‘agile’/flexible design approach will increase or undermine academic excellence? What are your reasons?


I will be finalizing the chapter on design models, so I will do a final post that sets out the main conclusion on design models and key takeaways from the chapter.

Review of ‘Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda.’

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Drop-out: the elephant in the DE room that no-one wants to talk about

Drop-out: the elephant in the DE room that no-one wants to talk about

Zawacki-Richter, O. and Anderson, T. (eds.) (2014) Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda Athabasca AB: AU Press, pp. 508

It is somewhat daunting to review a book of over 500 pages of research on any topic. I doubt if few other than the editors are likely to read this book from cover to cover. It is more likely to be kept on one’s bookshelf (if these still exist in a digital age) for reference whenever needed. Nevertheless, this is an important work that anyone working in online learning needs to be aware of, so I will do my best to cover it as comprehensively as I can.

Structure of the book

The book is a collection of about 20 chapters by a variety of different authors (more on the choice of authors later). Based on a Delphi study and analysis of ‘key research journals’ in the field, the editors have organized the topic into three sections, with a set of chapters on each sub-section, as follows:

1. Macro-level research: distance education systems and theories

  • access, equity and ethics
  • globalization and cross-cultural issues
  • distance teaching systems and institutions
  • theories and models
  • research methods and knowledge transfer

2. Meso-level research: management, organization and technology

  • management and organization
  • costs and benefits
  • educational technology
  • innovation and change
  • professional development and faculty support
  • learner support services
  • quality assurance

3. Micro-level: teaching and learning in distance education

  • instructional/learning design
  • interaction and communication
  • learner characteristics.

In addition, there is a very useful preface from Otto Peters, an introductory chapter by the editors where they justify their structural organization of research, and a short conclusion that calls for a systematic research agenda in online distance education research.

More importantly, perhaps, Terry Anderson and Olaf Zawacki-Richter demonstrate empirically that research in this field has been skewed towards micro-level research (about half of all publications).  Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly given its importance, costs and benefits of online distance education is the least researched area.

What I liked

It is somewhat invidious to pick out particular chapters, because different people will have different interests from such a wide-ranging list of topics. I have tended to choose those that I found were new and/or particularly enlightening for me, but other readers’ choices will be different. However, by selecting a few excellent chapters, I hope to give some idea of the quality of the book.

1. The structuring/organization of research

Anderson and Zawacki-Richter have done an excellent job in providing a structural framework for research in this field. This will be useful both for those teaching about online and distance education but in particular for potential Ph.D. students wondering what to study. This book will provide an essential starting point.

2. Summary of the issues in each area of research

Again, the editors have done an excellent job in their introductory chapter in summarizing the content of each of the chapters that follows, and in so doing pulling out the key themes and issues within each area of research. This alone makes the book worthwhile.

3. Globalization, Culture and Online Distance Education

Charlotte (Lani) Gunawardena of the University of New Mexico has written the most comprehensive and deep analysis of this issue that I have seen, and it is an area in which I have a great deal of interest, since most of the online teaching I have done has been with students from around the world and sometimes multi-lingual.

After a general discussion of the issue of globalization and education, she reviews research in the following areas:

  • diverse educational expectations
  • learners and preferred ways of learning
  • socio-cultural environment and online interaction
  • help-seeking behaviours
  • silence
  • language learning
  • researching culture and online distance learning

This chapter should be required reading for anyone contemplating teaching online.

4. Quality assurance in Online Distance Education

I picked this chapter by Colin Latchem because he is so deeply expert in this field that he is able to make what can be a numbingly boring but immensely important topic a fun read, while at the same time ending with some critical questions about quality assurance. In particular Latchem looks at QA from the following perspectives:

  • definitions of quality
  • accreditation
  • online distance education vs campus-based teaching
  • quality standards
  • transnational online distance education
  • open educational resources
  • costs of QA
  • is online distance education yet good enough?
  • an outcomes approach to QA.

This chapter definitely showcases a master at the top of his game.

5. The elephant in the room: student drop-out

This is a wonderfully funny but ultimately serious argument between Ormond Simpson and Alan Woodley about the elephant in the distance education room that no-one wants to mention. Here they start poking the elephant with some sticks (which they note is not likely to be a career-enhancing move.) The basic argument is that institutions should and could do more to reduce drop-out/increase course completion. This chapter also stunned me with providing hard data about really low completion rates for most open university students. I couldn’t help comparing these with the high completion rates for online credit courses at dual-mode (campus-based) institutions, at least in Canada (which of course are not ‘open’ institutions in that students must have good high school qualifications.)

Woodley’s solution to reducing drop-out is quite interesting (and later well argued):

  • make it harder to get in
  • make it harder to get out

In both cases, really practical and not too costly solutions are offered that nevertheless are consistent with open access and high quality teaching.

In summary

The book contains a number of really good chapters that lay out the issues in researching online distance education.

What I disliked

I have to say that I groaned when I first saw the list of contributors. The same old, same old list of distance education experts with a heavy bias towards open universities. Sure, they are nearly all well-seasoned experts, and there’s nothing wrong with that per se (after all, I see myself as one of them.)

But where are the young researchers here, and especially the researchers in open educational resources, MOOCs, social media applications in online learning, and above all researchers from the many campus-based universities now mainstreaming online learning? There is almost nothing in the book about research into blended learning, and flipped classrooms are not even mentioned. OK, the book is about online distance learning but the barriers or distinctions are coming down with a vengeance. This book will never reach those who most need it, the many campus-based instructors now venturing for the first time into online learning in one way or another. They don’t see themselves as primarily distance educators.

And a few of the articles were more like lessons in history than an up-to-date review of research in the field. Readers of this blog will know that I strongly value the history of educational technology and distance learning. But these lessons need to be embedded in the here and now. In particular, the lessons need to be spelled out. It is not enough to know that Stanford University researchers as long ago as 1974 were researching the costs and benefits of educational broadcasting in developing countries, but what lessons does this have for some of the outrageous claims being made about MOOCs? A great deal in fact, but this needs explaining in the context of MOOCs today.

Also the book is solely focused on post-secondary university education. Where is the research on online distance education in the k-12/school sector or the two-year college/vocational sector? Maybe they are topics for other books, but this is where the real gap exists in research publications in online learning.

Lastly, although the book is reasonably priced for its size (C$40), and is available as an e-text as well as the fully printed version, what a pity it is not an open textbook that could then be up-dated and crowd-sourced over time.


This is essential reading for anyone who wants to take a professional, evidence-based approach to online learning (distance or otherwise). It will be particularly valuable for students wanting to do research in this area. The editors have done an incredibly good job of presenting a hugely diverse and scattered area in a clear and structured manner. Many of the chapters are gems of insight and knowledge in the field.

However, we have a huge challenge of knowledge transfer in this field. Repeatedly authors in the book lamented that many of the new entrants to online learning are woefully ignorant of the research previously done in this field. We need a better way to disseminate this research than a 500 page printed text that only those already expert in the field are likely to access. On the other hand, the book does provide a strong foundation from which to find better ways to disseminate this knowledge. Knowledge dissemination in a digital world then is where the research agenda for online learning needs to focus.


Opening up: chapter one of Teaching in a Digital Age

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The view when I was writing Chapter 1, from the Island of Braç, Croatia

The view when I was writing Chapter 1, from the Island of Braç, Croatia

I’ve not been blogging much recently, because (a) I’ve been on holiday for a month in the Mediterranean and (b) I’ve been writing my book.

Teaching in a Digital World

As you are probably aware, I’m doing this as an open textbook, which means learning to adapt to a new publishing environment. As well as writing a darned good book for instructors on teaching in in a digital age, my aim is to push the boundaries a little with open publishing, to move it out of the traditional publishing mode into a a truly open textbook, with the help of the good folks at BCcampus who are running their open textbook project.

You will see that there’s still a long way to go before we can really exploit all the virtues of openness in publishing, and I’m hoping you can help me – and BCcampus- along the way with this.

What I’d like you to do

What I’m hoping you will do is find the time to browse the content list and preface (which is not yet finalized) and read more carefully Chapter 1, Fundamental Change in Higher Education, then give me some feedback. To do this, just go to: http://opentextbc.ca/teachinginadigitalage/

The first thing you will realise is that there is nowhere to comment on the published version. (Ideally I would like to have a comment section after every section of each chapter.) I will be publishing another post about some of the technical features I feel are still needed within PressBooks, but in the meantime, please use the comment page on this post (in which case your comment will be public), or use the e-mail facility  at the bottom of the chapter or preface (in which case your comment will be private). Send to tony.bates@ubc.ca .

What kind of feedback?

At this stage, I’m looking more for comments on the substance of the book, rather than the openness (my next post will deal with the technical issues). To help you with feedback, here are some of the questions I’m looking for answers to:

  1. Market: from what you’ve read so far, does there appear to be a need for this type of book? Are there other books that already do what I’m trying to do?
  2. Structure: does Chapter 1 have the right structure? Does it flow and is it logically organized?How could it be improved?
  3. Content: is there anything missing, dubious or just plain wrong? References that I have missed that support (or challenge) the content would also be useful.
  4. Do the activities work for you? Are there more interesting activities you can think of? How best to provide feedback? (e.g. does the use of ‘Parts’ work for this?)
  5. Presentation: are there other media/better images I could use? Is the balance between text and media right?

What’s in it for you?

First, I hope the content will be useful. Chapter 1 is probably the least useful of all the chapters to come for readers of this blog, because it’s aimed at instructors who are not comfortable with using technology, but if the material is useful to you, you are free to use it in whatever way you wish, within the constraints of a Creative Commons license.

Second, the whole point of open education is to share and collaborate. I’m opening up my book and the process; in return can I get some help and advice? In anticipation and with a degree of nervousness I look forward to your comments.