August 1, 2014

MIT, learning technologies, and developing countries: lessons in technology transfer

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This week I spent three days at the MIT LINC (Learning International Networks Consortium) conference in Boston/Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the theme: ‘Realizing the Dream: Education Becoming Available to All. Will the World take Advantage?’.

Because there is so much information that I would like to share, I am dividing this into two posts. This post will focus mainly on the activities reported from around the world, although many of these projects are related to or supported by MIT faculty and staff volunteers.

My second post, MOOCs, MIT and Magic, will focus on what MIT is doing to support technology-enabled learning, mainly at home.

But first some words about the conference.

LINC

The Learning International Networks Consortium (LINC) is an MIT-managed international initiative that began in 2001 and is operated by a growing team of MIT faculty, student and staff volunteers. 

The mission of the LINC project is: With today’s computer and telecommunications technologies, every young person can have a quality education regardless of his or her place of birth or wealth of parents.

LINC was the brain-child of Richard Larson, Professor of Engineering Systems at MIT.

The conference

LINC 2013 was the sixth conference on this theme organized by MIT. It presented a range of topics, technologies and strategies for technology-enabled learning for developing countries, and raised a number of questions about the implementation of learning technologies within developing countries. There were over 300 participants from 49 countries.

The conference was supported by MIT, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, and Fujitsu, enabling many participants from developing countries to be supported in their travel and accommodation.

I report below just a selection of the many sessions around the theme of technology-supported education in or for developing countries, and I apologize that for space reasons, I can’t give a full report on all the sessions.

MOOCs

The conference started with a session on four perspectives on MOOCs, with four speakers making short 20 minute presentations followed by a Q&A panel with the four speakers fielding questions from the audience. I was one of the speakers in this session, and because the session deserves a whole report on its own, I discuss this in more detail in my second post, MOOCs, MIT and Magic.

Sufficient here to say that Sir John Daniel made a point reinforced by speakers in other sections that open and virtual universities have been delivering mass credit-based open learning in developing countries for many decades before MOOCs arrived.

The state of technology-enabled education around the world

The future direction of virtual universities

John Daniel’s point was picked up in this session, when Presidents/Rectors from Tec de Monterrey’s Virtual University in Mexico, the African Virtual University, and the Virtual University of Pakistan described the activities of their institutions. In each case, these projects are reaching very large numbers of students in their own countries or region (around 100,000 each), but each institution has its own sets of challenges as well, especially in reaching the very poor or disadvantaged. However, each of these institutions seems to have a sustainable funding base which promises well for the future.

Bakary Diallo, Rector, African Virtual University

Reaching poor young men in Latin America

Fernando Reimers, the Director of the International Education Policy Program at Harvard, discussed the challenges that youth face in developing countries, particularly adolescent boys and young men, who are turned off by traditional teaching methods that neither fit their learning styles nor prepare them for the skills and knowledge needed in today’s workforce. He pointed out that less than 1% of the poorest 10% in Brazil have Internet access. (Similarly, in Mexico, less than 5% of socio-economic groups C, D and E currently have Internet access, and these three groups constitute almost two-thirds of the population.)

National educational policies and educational reform

Robin Horn discussed a World Bank project, SABER, which stands for A Systems Approach to Better Educational Results. The World Bank has found that often educational reform initiatives fail to gain traction in many countries because they do not align with existing government policies (or put another way, without changing policies, the reforms will not gain traction.) By looking at countries that have successful educational outcomes, and comparing their policies with the policies in other developing countries, it is hoped to identify barriers to educational reform. One example is telecommunications policies. An over-regulated, government controlled access to bandwidths can lead to high Internet costs due to lack of competition, whereas loose or unregulated government policies allow for competition resulting in both increased access and lower Internet costs (Canadian government: please note). Mike Trucano at the World Bank is identifying policies that appear to facilitate or inhibit the application of learning technologies in developing countries and this will be added to SABER in the near future.

The SABER website is packed full of data and analysis and makes fascinating reading for policy aficionados, and certainly my experience is that in all countries (not just developing countries) government policies do have a major influence on innovation and change in education. However, at the same time, ‘top-down’ strategies for increasing the use of learning technologies rarely work (South Korea may be an example of this – see below). In other words, government policies can foster or inhibit educational reform, but the reforms themselves will often have to come from or be supported by those close to the action, the teachers, parents and other stakeholders who will gain most from the changes.

Reaching the poor through educational TV in Brazil

Lúcia Araújo, the CEO of Canal Futura, an educational television network in Brazil, described the extensive use of ‘open source’ educational television and support materials that are being used by teachers throughout Brazil to support their classroom teaching. The programs are freely accessible through public television stations throughout Brazil, and almost 100% of homes in Brazil have access to television, a reminder that in many countries there are still better alternatives than the Internet to reach out to the poor and disadvantaged.

Online universities in Korea and SE Asia

Okwha Lee from Chungbuk National University in South Korea gave an overview of national educational technology developments in South Korea. In terms of sheer scale of online learning South Korea is one of the world’s leaders, with 21 cyber or online universities alone serving over 100,000 Korean students. The South Korean government plays a heavy hand in financing and managing national educational technology initiatives, through KERIS (the Korean Education and Research Information Service), and some of its centralization of data collection and top-down policies have provoked both hunger strikes and a national teachers’ strikes. South Korea has also invested in the ASEAN cyber university, which will include students from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Mynmar, with plans to extend it later to other ASEAN countries. Initially students will access programs through local e-learning centres.

Using Intranets to lower the cost of online learning in Africa

Cliff Missen, Director of the WiderNet Project and eGranary, gave a fascinating talk based around access to online learning in Africa. The WiderNet Project is a nonprofit organization, based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, that is dedicated to improving digital communications to all communities and individuals around the world in need of educational resources, knowledge, and training. Cliff Missen’s focus was on the high cost of Internet access for learners in developing countries, pointing out that while mobile phones are widespread in Africa, they operate on very narrow bandwidths. For instance, it costs US$2 to download a typical YouTube video – equivalent to a day’s salary for many Africans. Programs requiring extensive bandwidth, such as video lectures, are therefore prohibitively expensive for most Africans.

The WiderNet solution is the development of local Intranets linked to an extensive local library of open educational resources, the e-Granary project. The eGranary Digital Library — “The Internet in a Box” – is an off-line information store that provides instant access to over 30 million Internet resources to institutions lacking adequate Internet access. Through a process of copying web sites (with permission) and delivering them to partner institutions in developing countries, this digital library delivers instant access to a wide variety of educational resources including video, audio, books, journals, and Web sites. This means setting up local servers and terminals, and even building a small wireless station to cover the surrounding community, but not necessarily linked into the wider Internet. This cuts down substantially on the cost of accessing digital educational resources.

MIT BLOSSOMS: Math and Science Video Lessons for High School Classes

This project has developed over 60 short videos to enrich science and math high school lessons, all freely available to teachers as streaming video and Internet downloads and as DVDs and videotapes. The videos are made in short sections, with stopping points for student and teacher activities built into the videos and supported by the teachers’ guide to each video

What makes this program particularly interesting is that many of the videos have been developed in developing countries, through partnerships between MIT and local schools and teachers, and with local presenters, often from high schools themselves. The videos are of high quality, both in terms of content, which is guaranteed by oversight from MIT professors, and in production quality. There is a strong emphasis in relating science and math to everyday life. For examples see: How Mosquitoes Fly in Rain (made in the USA) and Pythagoras and the Juice Seller (made in Jordan).

As a result, these videos are also being increasingly used by schools in the USA as well as by schools in developing countries. Although some of the programs are made in the native language of the country where they are made, they are also provided with English sub-titles or with also a voice-over version. By developing programs with local teachers, programs can be fully integrated within the national curriculum, and MIT BLOSSOMS team has also shown how each video relates to individual US state curricula.

What MIT is doing in technology-enabled learning

This session focused on MIT’s other activities in technology-enabled learning. I will discuss this in more detail in my second post, MOOCs, MIT and Magic.

Parallel sessions

In addition to the above plenary sessions there were also 72 presentations, each of roughly ten minutes, in parallel sessions. I cannot possibly report on them all, but I will report on two that I found really interesting .

Taylor’s University, a private university in Malaysia, is using the iPad for teaching foundational engineering. The iPads are used to access  iBooks and electronic study materials that have been specially developed by the School of Engineering to support and enhance the students’ learning. Many of the animations and applications were specially developed by final year undergraduate students, working with their professor, Mushtak Al-Atabi. There is a video on YouTube that includes a good demonstration of how the iPad is used.

The second was presented by Ahmed Ibrahim in behalf of a team of researchers from McGill University and the University of British Columbia in Canada. They investgated through interviews “sources of knowledge” for students entering a gateway science course. The found that the most common source of ‘physics’ knowledge for the students is the teacher, followed by the textbook and other sources such as the Internet – what the researchers called testimony. Few students used deduction, induction or experimentation as means to ‘verify’ their knowledge. Thus the students did not feel empowered to be able to generate valid physics knowledge by themselves and  they have to turn to experts for it. In other words students are taught about science, rather than doing science, in high schools. They concluded that instructors need to use instructional methods, and activities that promote deeper learning, more conceptual knowledge construction, and more sophisticated epistemological beliefs. In other words, stay away from information transmission and focus on activities that encourage scientific thinking. Although this is a general finding (and based on a very small sample), it is significant for what I have to say in my next post about MOOCs and teaching science.

Conclusions

This was one of the most interesting conferences I have been to for a long time. It brought together practitioners in using technology-enabled learning, primarily in science, math and engineering, from a wide range of countries. As a result there was a wide range of approaches, from the highly ‘engineering-based’ approach of MIT with a focus on advanced or new technologies such as MOOCs, to practitioners tackling the challenges of lack of access to or the high cost of the Internet in many developing countries.

In particular, Internet access remains a major challenge, even in newly emerging countries with dynamic economies, such as Brazil, Mexico, and India, especially for reaching beyond the relatively wealthy middle classes. Even in economically advanced countries such as Canada, wideband access, needed for video-lecture based MOOCs for instance, is problematic for many disadvantaged groups such as the urban poor or for remote aboriginal reserves.

I was therefore interested to see that non-Internet based technologies such as radio, broadcast television or DVDs are still immensely valuable technologies for reaching the poor and disadvantaged in developing countries, as are Internet-linked local learning centres and/or Intranets.

Lastly, despite nearly 80 years of aid to developing countries, finding technology-enabled solutions to increasing access to education that are long-term and sustainable remains a challenge, especially when the aid is generated and organized from developed countries such as the USA and Canada. Local partnerships, cultural adaptation, use of appropriate, low-cost technologies, teacher education, and institutional and government policy changes are all needed if technology transfer is to work.

However, there is clear evidence from this conference that in many developing or economically emerging countries, there are local individuals and institutions finding local and appropriate ways to use technology to support learning. It will often start in the more affluent schools or in universities, but as the Internet gradually widens its spread, it begins to filter down to lower income groups as well. Indeed, in some areas, such as mobile learning in Africa, there is innovation and development taking place that exceeds anything in the developed world, in terms of originality and spread amongst the poor and disadvantaged.

The MIT group behind LINC has done a great service in providing a means for participants from both developed and developing countries to share experience and knowledge in this area.

 

Online learning in 2012: a retrospective

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© The Greening of Gavin, 2012

Well, 2012 was certainly the year of the MOOC. Audrey Watters provides a comprehensive overview of what happened with MOOCs in 2012, so I won’t repeat what she has done. Instead in this post I will focus mainly on trying to explain with regards to MOOCs what appears to me to be highly irrational organizational behaviour, more akin to lemmings than pillars of higher learning.

Why MOOCs?

For those of us who work mainly in universities and colleges, the hype around MOOCs is like living in two parallel universes: what we do every day in online learning, and what we read or hear about in the media. (I leave you to judge which is the true reality.) Even organizations that should know better think that online learning started at MIT in 2002 with OpenCourseWare. So why have MOOCs in particular got so much press?

This is an exercise in social anthropology.

To quote from Wikipedia:

It is unknown why lemming populations fluctuate with such variance roughly every four years, before plummeting to near extinction.

Now some evidence suggests their predators’ populations, particularly the stoat, may be more closely involved in changing the lemming population

Lemmings can swim and may choose to cross a body of water in search of a new habitat. In such cases, many may drown if the body of water is so wide as to stretch their physical capability to the limit.

 I believe there are several themes that have led to MOOC hysteria in 2012:

  • they appear to be free. The direct costs of higher education, especially but not only in the USA and the UK, have been systematically transferred from the tax payer to the individual student or parents through cuts in government funding and increases in tuition fees. In other words, the cost of higher education has become more transparent. It’s really expensive. Free of course is better than expensive. MOOCs have been promoted as being free. However, there are no free services. All services have a true cost. At least to date, MOOCs are the opposite of transparency on the true cost. We do know that over a hundred million dollars have been invested this year alone in MOOCs, but what are the costs of the professors’ time, the cost of managing large numbers of students, and above all, the cost of ensuring student learning (however it is measured)? We just don’t know. Until we do, it’s a shell game
  • it’s also a numbers game: input matters more than output. The focus of the media has been on the massive numbers enrolling. However, there has been little focus on what students are actually learning. All we know is that completion rates are pathetic (less than 10%), and many of those that do complete are already well educated. Nevertheless it is argued that on a global perspective, the completion numbers are still large. However, so are the numbers in traditional higher education, and also in credit-based online learning. Sloan and Babson have been tracking the online credit numbers for years. They have been growing at a steady rate of between 12-20% a year. Ontario alone has over 500,000 online course registrations in its public universities and colleges, with completion rates in the 75-85%, matching completion rates in face-to-face classes. Millions are taking online courses for credit in Asia. But does this get mass coverage in the media? No.
  • technology triumphs over teaching: MOOCs in general have been driven by computer scientists who believe that just ‘delivering’ content over the Internet equates to learning. It doesn’t, but broadcast content delivery is something that lazy reporters can easily understand.
  • it’s all about the elite institutions. The media love to focus on the ivy league universities to the almost total neglect of the rest of the system (the cult of the superstar). Here is an appalling irony. The top tier research universities have by and large ignored online learning for the last 15 years. Suddenly though when MIT, Stanford and Harvard jump in, all the rest follow like lemmings. MOOCs are seen as an easy, low risk way for these universities not only to catch up, but to jump into the front line. But they are hugely wrong. Moving from broadcasting to learning is not going to be easy. More importantly, MOOCs are a side issue, a distraction. The real change for universities is going to come from hybrid learning – a mix of on-campus and online learning. Those top tier research universities though are going to miss out on this, by sidelining their online learning to a peripheral, continuing education activity.
  • don’t forget the politics: There’s just been a presidential election in the USA. A number of corporate leaders and some in the Republican party want to privatize the US higher education system. Anything that will undermine it is heavily promoted. MOOCs to some extent have been a tool in the hands of the media for suggesting that education need not be expensive and could be ‘free’, or at least much lower cost, if left to business. This fits the agenda of the right.

Having said all this, I believe that there is a future for MOOCs, but that’s for another post, my outlook for 2013, which comes in January.

In the meantime, there were, believe it or not, several other interesting developments in online learning, but before exploring those as well, let’s see how right I was in my outlook for 2012.

What I predicted

  1. The year of the tablet: 99% probability
  2. Learning analytics: 90% probability
  3. Growth of open education: 70% probability (depending on definition of open education)
  4. Disruption of the LMS market: 60% probability
  5. Integration of social media into formal learning: 66% probability
  6. The digital university: 10% probability
  7. Watch India
  8. The great unknown: 10% probability

Well, not a great record at prediction. I suppose you could include MOOCs within ‘growth of open education’. But look at what I actually wrote:

open access to high quality (all right, highly qualified) instructors is likely to be limited to idealistic volunteers, or to limited events (e.g. a MOOC), mainly because of a mis-match between supply and demand. Too many people want access to what they may incorrectly assume to be high quality instructors at elite institutions, for instance. This is partly an institutional barrier, as institutions try to protect their ‘star’ faculty, which is why this form of openness depends largely on individual volunteers.

Not actually wrong, but it certainly didn’t capture the mania that would develop around MOOCs in 2012.

Although there have been lots of interesting individual uses of tablets, particularly in k-12, they certainly haven’t taken off to the extent to which I predicted, at least in post-secondary education. However, so much in prediction depends on timing – maybe it will happen this year. For instance, mobile learning, one of my predictions for 2011, certainly expanded in many institutions in 2012, and will certainly continue to grow in 2013. The use of data analytics definitely increased, but still in a minority of institutions, in 2012, but learning analytics are still being used by a very tiny minority. The technology isn’t quite ready yet. (Again, this depends on definition – I’m talking about the hope that learning analytics will help instructors to achieve better learning outcomes, or put another way, will help students to improve their learning.)

What you read

Another way at looking at 2012 is to see what you chose to read. There are just over 1,800 posts on the site. Here are the top 14 posts in 2012, with the number of hits. (If you missed one, just click on it.)

Recommended graduate programs in e-learning

15,685

What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs

7,089

e-learning outlook for 2012: will it be a rough ride?

6,827

New technologies for e-learning in 2012 (and a little beyond)

6,658

A short critique of the Khan Academy

5,026

Can you teach ‘real’ engineering at a distance?

4,988

What Is Distance Education?

4,083

Why learning management systems are not going away

3,624

E-learning quality assurance standards, organizations and research

3,221

A personal view of e-learning in Saudi Arabia

2,844

A student guide to studying online

2,513

10 types of plagiarism (and why I’m pleading guilty to at least one charge)

2,353

Daniel’s comprehensive review of MOOC developments

2,264

Designing online learning for the 21st century

1,929

The numbers of course are skewed by their date of  posting. Those posted early in the year have more chance of being accessed than those posted later. Timing also matters in terms of external events. Despite all the hype about MOOCs, only two of the top 14 posts were specifically on MOOCs (although there were several others posted). I am though surprised at the amount of interest in prediction, especially given how bad I am at it!

The inclusion of ‘Can you teach real engineering at a distance?’ at no. 6 is really interesting. This was posted originally on July 5, 2009, but it has sustained a long discussion that is still active today. I was also pleased to see that designing online learning for the 21st century squeezed in, as this was about design of online learning. I’m glad there’s still at least some interest in this issue. There is also evidence that the site is being used by  a lot of online students (or potential students), which is very gratifying. I need to do more posts targeted to students next year.

What I did

Since I’m not free and open (except here), this is some indication of what institutions were interested in this year (at least enough to pay me for it).

Site visits for consultancies or discussions with faculty/staff on strategies or designs for online learning

  • Mexico City: to develop a business plan for a national Mexican virtual university
  • Edmonton: Campus St-Jean, University of Alberta: informal review of online learning activities
  • Université de Sherbrooke, l’université Laval and Université de Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Québec
  • Vancouver Community College, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and University of British Columbia, BC
  • University of Manitoba, Winnipeg
  • EFQUEL conference, Granada, Spain
  • COHERE conference, Calgary, Alberta

Online consultancies

MOOCs and Webinars

  • planning and managing online learning: participant in #Change 11 cMOOC
  • costs of online learning: guest instructor for University of Maryland University College/University of Oldenberg, Germany
  • Elections Canada: online course design

Institutional site visits and reports on gamechanging institutions

  • Western Governors University
  • Open University, UK
  • Open University of Catalonia, Spain
  • London Knowledge lab, Institute of Education, London, UK.

It can be seen there was a great deal of interest in:

  • strategies and management,
  • new course designs,
  • design and organization of online institutions,
  • the costs of online learning

during 2012. These issues are not likely to disappear next year, either.

Politics and economics

In 2012, there were major developments in both the politics and economics of online learning. Governments in the USA and Europe accelerated cost cutting in post-secondary education. Nearly one billion dollars has been cut from the community college system in California alone since 2008. Student tuition fees have risen dramatically over the last five years in both the USA and the U.K. Even in Canada, provincial governments are facing the need to constrain public funding.

In Ontario, Canada’s largest province, the government threw down a challenge to the post-secondary institutions. Enrollments will need to increase, quality must be obtained, but there will be no new money. What can the institutions do to increase productivity through innovation? It’s a good question. Business cannot go on as usual. There is surely room for improvement and change in our institutions.

This theme is likely to continue into 2013. Governments, parents and increasingly students will be looking to online learning to increase productivity: better learning outcomes for less money. Are we up to the challenge?

Goodbye, 2012

I asked the question last year: will it be a rough ride? It’s certainly been a fast ride and quite bumpy at the same time. I don’t know how you feel, but I feel I’m hanging on, but only just. It’s good though that it’s exciting, stimulating, infuriating, and frustrating. It means that online learning is alive and well, growing in both breadth and more importantly depth.

So to all my readers, thank you for coming along for the ride. Have a great break, merry Christmas, happy Hanukah, or just have a good time, whatever your religion or beliefs. And I look forward to sharing my outlook for 2013 in the new year.

Questions

1. What pleased, surprised or disappointed you in 2012 with regard to online learning?

2. What do you think was the most important development in 2012 for online learning? Obama’s re-election? MOOCs? New course designs? Or something else?

3. Are we up to the challenge of using online learning to increase productivity through innovation? If so, what would that look like?

Massive growth of online learning in Asia

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Aakash 2: already 3.5 million ordered

Adkins, S. S. (2012) The Asia Market for Self-paced eLearning Products and Services: 2011-2016 Forecast and Analysis Ambient Insight, October

In all the hoopla about MOOCs, it is worth noting that in Asia, credit-based online learning is already reaching many millions of learners. This report from Ambient Insight, targeted mainly at the corporate e-learning market, provides a host of fascinating statistics about the Asian market for online learning.

Several countries for instance are putting their entire k-12 curriculum online. China’s goal is to have their entire K-12 population of over 200 million students online by 2020. In South Korea all primary and secondary schools must be entirely digital by 2015, and every child with have a personal learning device. In India, the Aakash 2 tablet, which launched this month, already has 3.5 million orders.

The report also highlights ‘explosive growth of online higher education enrollments‘ in Asia. One institution alone in China, ChinaEdu, has nearly 200,000 students taking degree programs wholly online, and over 100,000 South Koreans are enrolled in cyber universities.

Perhaps most interesting of all though is the author’s comment on how the digitization is occurring:

The content digitization tends to start with converting print-based textbooks to eTextbooks. Yet, once the infrastructure and learning technology is in place, the buyers are increasingly opting for interactive, self-paced multimedia content. Several of the newer initiatives are leapfrogging eTextbooks altogether and building out interactive media as a core component.

If you want to pay for a full copy of the report, contact: info@ambientinsight.com


 

Book proposes a regional organization for distance education in Eastern Europe/West Asia

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A map of the ICDEEWA region

Demiray, U. (2012) Leadership role for Turkey for ICDEEEWA Midas eBooks

This free e-book (in English), by Urgur Demiray of the Turkish Anadolu University, looks at the leadership role of Turkey among distance education institutions from the Balkans, South Eastern Europe, the Baltic, Turkics, Caucasia, and the Middle East Arab countries.

Anadolu University is the fourth largest university in the world by enrollment, with approximately 1 million students. Demiray argues that the international distance education organizations in the Eastern Europe/West Asia region of the world are not well organized. To fill this gap, Demiray argues that Turkey might have a leadership role in the distance education field in this region and can provide the institutions in these countries with leadership on best practices. He proposes a new regional distance education consortium, including structure and regulations, to be called ICDEEEWA (International Council for Distance Education for Eastern Europe and West Asia).

Comment

It should be noted that the International Council for Distance Education, the main international body representing distance education institutions, already collaborates with several regional associations (eight covering Europe and two covering Asia) but none that focuses specifically on the region that Professor Demiray is discussing. It will be interesting to see how the ICDE responds to Professor Demiray’s proposal.

Second, there probably is a strong need for collaboration (not the same thing as leadership) in distance education for many of the 50 countries in the region proposed by Demiray, and the Anadolu University would be a valuable partner or resource.

However, I think he has cast the net too wide. For instance, I think the Nordic countries will be surprised to learn that ‘e-transformation has been much slower in [their] education systems.’ In fact, countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland are among the world leaders in online learning. A smaller grouping that has more in common in languages and culture – and distance education and technology development –  is likely to be more successful.

Furthermore, a more collaborative model is likely to be both politically more acceptable, and practically more effective, than a leadership model, given that all educational development needs to be modified and adapted to local needs.

Nevertheless, those of you interested in the development of distance education in Eastern Europe and West Asia, and in particular those interested in the practices of the Anadolu University, will find this book a stimulating read, and Professor Demiray has provided a clear vision and a practical proposal for furthering distance education within the region.

 


 

Book review: Quality assurance in distance education and e-learning

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© Insights, 2012

Jung, I. and Latchem, C. (2012) Quality Assurance and Accreditation in Distance Education and e-Learning New York/London: Routledge

What the book is about

There is relatively little in the literature about QA and accreditation in distance education and online schooling, college or university education, non-formal adult and community education or workplace training. Drawing on international theory, research and the experience and expertise of the contributors, this book shows why and how these are applied across the globe, considers the lessons learned, and suggests frameworks and guidelines for their implementation.’

What’s in it

The book is essentially a collection of 23 chapters by invited contributors, with a foreword from Sir John Daniel, President of the Commonwealth of Learning. The chapters fall into roughly three groups:

  • three chapters that provide an overview of the main concepts and premises behind quality assurance and accreditation
  • seventeen chapters on quality assurance in distance education and e-learning in different regions or countries around the world, or in specific sectors, as follows:
    • Asia
    • sub-Saharan Africa
    • USA and Canada
    • United Kingdom
    • Europe
    • Australia and New Zealand (including a separate chapter on Open Universities Australia)
    • open universities
    • Indonesian Open University (Universitas Terbuka)
    • University of the South Pacific and the University of the West Indies
    • Palestinian Al-Quds University
    • Commonwealth of Learning
    • open and online schooling
    • workplace training
    • telecentres
  • three concluding chapters, one on competencies and quality assurance, one on learners’ perceptions, and a concluding chapter.

Review

Overall

This book provides comprehensive coverage of the practice and applications of quality assurance in distance education and some elements of e-learning around the world. The articles are in general well written and authoritative. The book is comprehensive in the sense that it covers the main issues and ways in which quality assurance has been applied, particularly in distance education. It will be of particular value to those working in particular areas of the world where distance education is still not accepted, and there are still many countries where this is the case.

What I liked

I very much liked the foreword by John Daniel, who provides an extremely succinct overview of the book and the issues arising.

This book really brings home the struggle that distance education and online learning still have to prove their legitimacy, despite the sometimes extraordinary lengths that they have gone to demonstrate their quality. Frequently, the issue of double standards arise, whereby distance and online programs have to meet standards or criteria that are never applied to campus-based programs.

The book also brings home how widespread the QA movement is in distance education, and how many countries and regions are struggling with similar issues.

I also enjoyed reading many of the individual chapters on what’s happening in countries and regions as diverse as Indonesia, Korea, the European Union, Australia, Asia and North America. It reinforced particularly the peculiar mess that the USA has got itself into with regard to accreditation and quality assurance. Although a better system of accreditation would surely help, I doubt that greater attention to QA processes is the answer to their growing problems in post-secondary education.

Lastly, I particularly liked Insung Jung and Colin Latchem’s concluding chapter, which pulled together a number of important QA issues which are worth summarizing:

  • focus on outcomes as the leading measure of quality
  • take a systemic approach to quality assurance
  • see QA as a process of continuous improvement
  • move the institution from external controls to an internal culture of quality
  • poor quality has very high costs so investment in quality is worthwhile.

What I didn’t like

I said earlier that the book covers ‘some elements of e-learning’ because the book does not touch on the greatest area of application of e-learning, which is in the traditional campus-based universities and two year colleges. It is a pity that this issue has not been addressed. First, besides being a huge area, the issues around quality assurance are somewhat different from those of open and distance learning institutions, or even the dual-mode institutions, because most of the campus-based institutions moving for the first time into e-learning are already accredited as campus-based institutions. Some traditional institutions develop very high quality e-learning, while others (particularly for example in the US college system) fail to follow best practices and as a result often deliver very poor quality e-learning. More than any other, it is the traditional campus-based institutions that have moved into e-learning that need to put in place policies and procedures that assure quality in online learning, yet there are no examples of what is being done is in this sector in this book. However, Insung Jung and Colin Latchem’s chapter on competencies and quality assurance should be required reading in such institutions.

It could of course be argued that these institutions anyway follow standard QA processes for all their programs, but the standard degree quality assurance process does not adequately cover the specifics of e-learning or online learning on campus-based institutions, although some quality assurance boards (such as the QAA in the UK and PEQAB in Ontario) have put in place specific ‘benchmarks’ for online courses being offered in certain sectors (but not all). As more and more already accredited (and ‘high quality’) campus-based institutions start moving into hybrid learning, the establishment of quality in the e-learning elements of programs will become even more important. However, this is probably another book, and should not diminish the value of this book.

Some general points

Despite this book, I still have very mixed feelings about the quality assurance movement in post-secondary education. Yes, there are enormous differences in the quality of online and distance learning providers, and some of the more elite institutions are the worst culprits in terms of a quality online or digital learning experience. But ensuring quality in online learning is not rocket science. There is plenty of evidence of what works and what doesn’t, such as regular and challenging interaction between instructor and students, efficient student administration, interactive and well structured materials, etc. We don’t need to build a bureaucracy around this, but there does need to be some mechanism, some way of calling institutions when they fail to meet these standards. However, we should also do the same for campus-based teaching.

Also, QA when applied rigidly can stifle innovation in online teaching and learning. ‘Best practice’ may need occasionally to be challenged, so we can experiment with and evaluate new approaches.

But my main reason for harbouring doubts about the QA movement is that QA doesn’t really address the need for more differentiation in our educational system. Distance education organizations are not the same as elite traditional universities and shouldn’t try to be. This means that different types of institution will and should evaluate quality differently. Of course, this also requires greater sophistication amongst potential learners and even more so, governments.

There is a famous put-down in an Oscar Wilde play when an aristocratic lady comments on a bourgeois woman’s attempt at ‘class’: ‘She tries so hard, doesn’t she?’ QA doesn’t really deal with the issues of elitism. Yes, Oxford University has QA procedures that meet the external QAA requirements, but does anyone believe that this is the reason why it has its cachet of ‘quality’? Sometimes I think that distance education institutions in particular try too hard to establish their quality credentials, when what they should be emphasising is their differences, and especially the different purposes they exist to meet. I really would look for different measures of quality in the Open University, for instance, than in Cambridge University. Neither one is necessarily better (depending on what you are looking for), but the learning experience will be different. In the meantime, let’s pay much more attention to what campus-based institutions are doing when they move to online learning. Are they following best practices, or even better, innovating and evaluating?

Having got that off my chest, let’s come back to the book. This is an important book, especially for distance educators, but will also be useful for administrators from conventional institutions that are moving into hybrid and fully online learning. It provides the current state of the art on quality assurance in this field and as such I highly recommend it.