April 20, 2014

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

Listen with webReader


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

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

The conversation

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

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

What she said about online learning

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

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

Why what she said is important

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

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

What she also said about public higher education

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

The UC system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open and distance learning in Myanmar

Listen with webReader
Shwedagon Pagoda Yangon

Shwedagon Pagoda Yangon

Hla Tint (2014) Perspectives of Open and Distance Learning in Myanmar Yangon Myanmar: Yangon University of Distance Education

You probably know relatively little about the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (still also known as Burma in some countries), and if you are like me, you know even less about open and distance education in Myanmar.


Myanmar was ruled by a military dictatorship from 1962 to 2011. Many Western countries placed sanctions on Myanmar and as a result it was quite isolated until recently. General elections were held in 2010, and the military junta was dissolved a year later, but the military are still strongly in control, although a process of democratic liberalisation is under way. Nobel prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, recently legalized, won 43 of 45 parliamentary seats in parliamentary by-elections in 2012, sanctions have been withdrawn, and there is now much greater contact with Western and other countries.

Open and distance education in Myanmar

Yangon University of Distance Education

Yangon University of Distance Education

I am very grateful to Dr. Hla Tint, the Acting Rector of Yangon University of Distance Education, for sharing with me a recent paper he has written about open and distance learning in Myanmar. I recommend that you read the paper in full, but here is a brief summary:

The Higher Education System

  • there are currently 163 HE institutions, all currently funded by the government
  • in 1975, bachelors programs were offered through University Correspondence Courses (print supplemented by radio), in association with Yangon University (the main university at the time – Yangon was formerly called Rangoon by the British)
  • in 1992, UCC was upgraded to the University of Distance Education
  • in 1998 the name was changed to Yangon University of Distance Education, because another institution, Mandalay University of Distance Education, was created that year.

Student numbers

In 2012, there was a total of 471,000 students (out of a total population of 60 million). Of these 471,000 students, 284,000 (60%) were studying by distance education. Roughly 60,000 students a year graduate through the distance education programs, and course completion rates average 85%.

Delivery methods and technology

The two distance teaching universities have a total of 32 local learning centres, mostly attached to conventional universities, across the country. These centres provide access to labs, offer intensive face-to-face classes before exams, and act as exam centres.

Originally, the delivery methods included printed textbooks, study guides and 16 assignments per course. Today, the distance universities make extensive use of satellite broadcasting, with their own channel, with reception available in over 600 learning centres in schools, colleges and universities. In addition students have access to printed materials, audio and video tapes, and live broadcast teaching as well as more general television programs.

The Internet however is not accessible in many places in Myanmar and is expensive to use, and so is not in significant use to date by the distance teaching universities. Nevertheless Yangon University of Distance Education offers approximately 50 courses online, mainly in law.

Quality assurance

This seems to be work in progress. There is an annual symposium to draw up quality standards for distance education, and international exchange programs are being organized for faculty. The Centre for Distance Education (CDE), London University is working to prepare a project proposal  ”Capacity Development Initiative for Yangon University of Distance Education”. YUDE is also working with ICDE’s quality assurance standards.


I strongly recommend that you read the full paper (click here), but I am struck by the importance of distance education in Myanmar, where more than 60% of those who matriculate from high school take programs by distance. In 2011, 14% of a cohort went on to some form of tertiary education in Myanmar, so there is still a huge challenge in providing sufficient places in universities. In such circumstances, there is much greater scope for expansion of the system through distance education than through conventional institutions. The issue of course is quality and recognition of the degrees from the distance teaching universities, as well as the need to strengthen the school system so that more students matriculate.

Also I find the choice of technology interesting and highly appropriate given the high cost and limited availability of the Internet. Even when the Internet becomes more widely available, it will be difficult to achieve the economies of scale currently being achieved through the use of print and satellite broadcasting.

Myanmar is going through a very important transition, but it seems well placed to build on its past history of distance education.



New developments in online learning across the University of California system – and the implications for us all

Listen with webReader
The University of California system

The University of California system

To, K. (2014) UC Regents announce online course expansion, The Guardian, UC San Diego, undated, but probably February 5

The University of California system continues to struggle with providing a system-wide approach to online learning. This is a report of decisions made at a UC Board of Regents meeting on January 15.

The California public higher education system

The UC system consists of a number of publicly-funded Tier 1 research universities such as Berkeley, UCLA, San Diego, Davis and Irvine, spread across a very large state. Altogether there are 10 campuses with nearly 250,000 students. In addition, the California State University system, with 23 campuses and nearly 450,000 students, operates mainly at undergraduate level, although many campuses also offer masters and Ph.D. programs. Lastly there are 72 community colleges, with 2.4 million students, focusing primarily on vocational education and training.


First though a little background, because what the UC Regents are trying to do – create economies of scale by sharing online undergraduate courses across the different institutions – is really important in terms of productivity and effectiveness. A number of other jurisdictions or state-wide systems, such as the University of Florida, and here in Canada, the province of Ontario, are trying to do something similar. Many institutions have had online graduate programs, but these new initiatives are focusing on online undergraduate education, which for many institutions is a new development. Even more controversial is the idea of sharing courses, so that a course developed at one campus will automatically be accepted for credit in another.

UC Online

In January 2012 the Regents set up UC Online after a two year pilot. This program now offers 11 courses for cross-campus enrollment, so it’s pretty modest. More importantly, not all of the UC campuses are participating in this endeavour. For instance, UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara have decided not to participate in the program because of issues around student admission and enrollment.

The Innovative Learning Technology Initiative (ILTI)

This is a new initiative launched in early 2013, helped by grants totalling $10 million that Governor Jerry Brown allotted to the UC and to the California State University systems in July 2013, to offer more undergraduate courses online with an emphasis on high-in-demand and prerequisite classes, i.e. extra money specifically for online courses.

At the recent Regents meeting three critically important decisions were made:

  • the establishment of a cross-campus enrollment webpage, i.e. one-stop shopping for potential students
  • funding for an additional 30 courses to be created
  • the development of an approval process for cross-campus course credit.

Under the ILTI, the regents intend to create 150 credit-bearing online and hybrid courses by 2016. Presumably these will be in addition to ones already on offer from the individual campuses themselves. (In 2011-2012  UC campuses individually offered over 2,500 online courses, with more than 90,000 enrolled students.)

Online courses without human interaction?

One major reason for anxiety within the UC system is the pressure from the governor:

Brown continues to urge for a complete absence of human interaction in online courses. “You say you need human touch — I say, maybe you don’t need it,” Brown told the The Daily Californian on Jan. 28. “The barrier here is the human software, the human thought that we’re putting into the technology.”

Politics and economics

What’s pushing the governor’s support for automated online learning is the large state debt accumulated over many years. California had massive current account deficits preceding and following the recession in 2008. Governor Brown is now able to project a small surplus on operating costs, but only because of massive funding cuts to the post-secondary education system over the last few years. However demand from students has not gone away, so the pressure for a low cost way of providing undergraduate education is a political and economic necessity for Brown.


First, I am more than 1,000 miles away, I don’t work in the system, so I don’t have all the information I need. But the big picture seems to me to be clear, and the implications are much wider than the just for the state of California.

The three decisions recently announced by the Regents are essential first steps to creating a more coherent approach to online learning in the UC system, or elsewhere. However, in terms of the overall UC system, the number of new courses being funded through the ILTI initiative is tiny. The real drive towards online learning is coming from the individual campuses themselves, and it would make more sense to try and co-ordinate these activities than to add a further layer on to an already large and complex system, particularly a layer that is directly funded from the governor’s office and politically driven, with all the risks that are entailed.

Nevertheless we are already seeing other state or province wide public higher education systems moving in this direction and we will see more. There are possible economies of scale to be gained from sharing at least content across high-demand, standard foundational programs, and students need the flexibility to take online courses from different campuses in the same system without unnecessary barriers. It seems absurd to me that UC San Diego would not accept credits for online courses taken from UC Davis or vice versa – they are all part of the same system. This doesn’t mean to say it will be easy. It will need cross campus agreement on combinations of courses for particular programs, and some common admission standards between the campuses, if that doesn’t exist already. While this involves some work, though, it is not rocket science (come to British Columbia to see how this is done, via the BC Council on Admissions and Transfer).

Much more worrying are the political aspects. I am sure Governor Brown will find many distinguished computer scientists and California-based companies such as Coursera and Google who will tell him that university teaching can be fully automated – but they are wrong. They do not understand how learning takes place. Someone needs to get the message through to Governor Brown that the research on online credit-based learning shows clearly that for high level learning, student and instructor interaction is essential, as well as student-student interaction. So you run a real risk then of poor quality outcomes if you try to automate online learning, at least given the status of artificial intelligence now and well into the future. At the same time, there are opportunities for economies of scale, but mainly on the transmission of content side and sharing of courses and programs.

This leads to my last point. None of this will be satisfactorily resolved without some clear vision for California’s public higher education system. What we are seeing is tinkering around the edges, without a clear picture of what the goals are other than cutting cost. What kind of system does California want for the future, and where does online learning fit within this vision? For instance, does it want to be the best public post-secondary education system in the world – which it could well be – or does it want a mediocre, low cost public system with the private institutions carrying the heavy load in research and status? Only when Californians make up their minds on this will we see a coherent system-wide strategy for online learning in California.


Another e-learning platform from Nigeria

Listen with webReader


Adepoju, P. (2014) Nigeria is ready for e-learning – Fora.co Humanipo, January 28

I wrote about tutor.ng in a previous post. Fora.co is another e-learning platform, working with ‘Africa’s leading Universities, organizations and governments to provide young Africans with affordable access to the best educational content online, offline and on mobile‘. It offers over 500 courses or course packs, consisting of:

pre-built bundles of relevant digital learning resources that can be used as teaching or training aids in the classroom. (Minimum 6 hours of professor lectures) 
+ Lab Exercises 
+ Textbooks & required readings 
+ Test banks (Minimum 100 questions) 
+ Presentation Slide templates for lectures

Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, chief executive officer at Fora.co, believes that in Nigeria, the technology is not the main barrier. The problem is lack of local content:

We are still light years behind others countries. Nigerian e-learning content is often badly designed and instructional design for online courses still seems foreign to our e-learning content landscape. This is one of the reasons we have had to focus on selling foreign courses because the local courses we saw were quite simply not up to snuff.

For students with difficult or costly access to the Internet, Fora provides learners with a flash drive that ‘synchronizes data from offline interactions and downloads new content from Fora.co to the flashdrive whenever internet access becomes available‘.

Flora markets both directly to institutions and also to individual students. Fora charges a fee per student that depends on the size of the institution and the kind of content bundle required. The lowest priced content bundle is $59.99/student (~N10,000/student).

However, at the moment its web site does not list the courses, the institutions that provide the materials, or the institutions that Fora is working with. This will come shortly; the materials however are properly sourced with the permission of each of the institutions whose materials are used.


Again, it will be interesting to see how this company develops, and whether the business model is successful. It is likely to work best with small, private institutions who can charge a premium fee thus generating a profit.

A major test will be if any African public universities partner, and whether courses will eventually be accredited in Nigeria.

Nevertheless I am sure we will see more attempts like this around Africa to build viable e-learning or online systems through the private sector.


After I initially posted this, I discovered that this project had a Canadian origin, originally conceived at the University of Waterloo’s Velo City Garage and with connections with the MaRS Tech project: click here for much more information about the Fora operation. See also Iyinoluwa Aboyeji’s comments to this post below.

Commercial e-learning platform launched in Nigeria

Listen with webReader


Wakoba, S. (2014) Tutor.ng, an online tutoring platform with a marketplace for teachers launches to disrupt online learning in Africa, TechMoran, January 27

I have said several times that I think some of the most interesting innovation in online learning will come out of Africa. This one is an interesting departure: instead of selling online courses to students, Tutor.ng is selling a suite of online services to individual tutors or institutions. Services include:

  • an online learning classroom environment (whiteboard, video and audio facilities, document loading)
  • content: courses such as ‘Architectural Visualizations’, ‘Financial Management for Small Businesses’, ‘The Smart Looking Dude’ and ‘Personal Make-up Training’. To date, 22 courses are listed
  • ability for the instructor to create quizzes and tests
  • live chat with students
  • mobile support
  • and (most importantly) payment collection.

The business model is based not on selling directly to students but to instructors or institutions. Some of the courses are offered free (probably as loss leaders by Tutor.ng) but the integrated payment system presumably allows instructors to charge students for their courses. No credits are offered, but presumably if an institution used the service, they would accredit students.

It will be interesting to see how well this does.