January 23, 2017

Webinar on choosing modes of delivery and the role of face-to-face teaching in an online world

Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

On Tuesday I gave another in the Contact North series of webinars designed around my open, online textbook for faculty and instructors, Teaching in a Digital Age.

This focused on Chapter 9 of the book, but with a different twist from last year’s webinar on the same topic, this year’s webinar focused particularly on the move to blended learning, and the need to redefine the role of campus-based teaching when so much can now be done online.

You can download a recording of the webinar from here: https://contactnorth.webex.com/contactnorth/lsr.php?RCID=760bef531b9a8fcf59f5480dd57401ff. However, make sure you have the WebEx ARF player downloaded in order to play the recording – see the download instructions on the above web page if the ‘play’ button doesn’t load the recording.

Also note that the presentation doesn’t start until two minutes into the recording because the introduction was accidentally muted.


What the Conference Board of Canada thinks about online learning


Grant, M. (2016) Learning in the Digital Age Ottawa: Conference Board of Canada

The Conference Board of Canada bills itself as ‘the foremost independent, evidence-based, not-for-profit applied research organization in Canada’. Its Board is made up mainly of representatives from major corporate or business organizations. So when it issues a report on e-learning in Canada, it is likely to be read across a broad swathe of corporate and governmental organizations not directly engaged in education, but with a major interest in the kinds of graduates being produced in Canada in a digital age. It is also something that Canadian university leaders are likely to pay attention to as well.

What the report is about

The introduction to the report states:

Information and communication technologies hold the potential to improve post-secondary learning by making learning more accessible and engaging. This report considers how and when e-learning may be used to improve post-secondary education in Canada.


Chapter 1: Introduction

E-learning is defined (‘online learning’ is considered as being more or less the same as e-learning), it is argued that the quality of teaching drops as face-to-face class sizes get larger, and e-learning can make learning less expensive and more accessible.

Chapter 2: the 5 Ws of e-learning:

The five Ws are the what, why, when, who, and where of e-learning in Canada. The main points of this chapter are as follows:

  • E-learning uses a range of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to deliver and manage learning.
  • The inherent differences between e-learning and traditional face-to-face classroom instruction relate to two factors: organization of time and space, and use of technology.
  • E-learning is becoming more popular because it appeals to learners, is cost-effective, and its quality is improving.
  • The North American e-learning market is mature in terms of e-learning adoption, but still developing in terms of the sophistication of e-learning offerings. Other markets around the world are rapidly adopting e-learning.

Chapter 3: Post-secondary e-learning in Canada

This provides a brief summary of current e-learning provision in Canadian universities and colleges. Almost the whole of the information in this chapter is based on secondary sources. It concludes:

Canada’s post-secondary institutions have been reluctant to offer e-learning as a degree option to full-time undergraduate students; perhaps because this would compete with residential learning programs.

This chapter also argues that investments in e-learning technologies such as LMSs are considerably under-utilized, that adoption is following the path of least resistance, and for the most part, e-learning is not being used as an alternative format for younger, full-time degree students because this would undermine institutions’ need to make use of existing classroom infrastructure.

Chapter 4: Advancing e-learning

This chapter particularly looks at the perceived barriers to e-learning:

There are a variety of institutional factors that must be addressed if e-learning is to be more widely adopted in the Canadian post-secondary system. These have to do with the way capital is funded at the institutions, institution management, and the way e-learning is designed and executed.

most of the people who make decisions about funding capacity favour building more physical classes. It matters little whether this is the most efficient and effective way to conduct post-secondary education….The economics of funding capacity help to explain why e-learning adoption is low. If capacity is funded in a different way, then the economics will change.

rational capacity planning and utilization should consider optimal pedagogy and learner preferences first, followed by investing in suitable learning capacity to accommodate the volume and type of learning. Then the pricing of learning should reflect its cost to deliver.

In this chapter it is argued that there is much poor quality e-learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions, but it provides three examples of effective e-learning design and execution (from York University, the University of Alberta, and Humber College).

Main report conclusions

  • E-learning holds the potential to profoundly change the way post-secondary education (PSE) is designed and delivered.
  • From a quality perspective, e-learning may be more engaging, less passive, and more customized to different learning styles than traditional lecture-based learning.
  • There are about 1.3 million enrolments in fully online university and college courses in Canada. E-learning accounts for between 10 and 15 per cent of PSE learning.
  • Greater adoption of e-learning will happen if institutional focus on traditional classroom delivery can be reduced; faculty are adequately supported when they teach online; and e-learning design, development, and delivery practices improve.

Report recommendations (summary)

‘Based on this report’s analysis, the following recommendations are made for consideration in the [Conference Board’s] Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education (SPSE) national strategy:

  1. Reduce economic barriers to e-learning adoption: Institutional administrators, governments, and benefactors need to work together to change the PSE approach to capacity planning. They need to consider how to use e-learning and blended learning to lower costs, improve accessibility, and increase quality.
  2. Tackle institutional constraints to e-learning: Faculty resistance will be broken down when more faculty members are supported in approaching their teaching responsibilities through blended and e-learning formats.
  3. Adopt excellent e-learning practices: Post-secondary institutions need to recognize e-learning instructional design as a unique discipline. They need to access these distinctive skills either through their own in-house teams or external providers. Forums need to be created for post-secondary stakeholders to share and adopt best practices in e-learning design and execution.


This is a curious report and I find it unusually difficult to comment on it. Most of the conclusions I would not disagree with, but the report has a peculiar feeling of being written by outsiders who haven’t really quite grasped what’s going on. What is going on is a slowly boiling and considerably variable revolution in higher education that is not easily measured or even captured in individual anecdotes or interviews.

The main weakness of the report is that it relies so heavily on secondary sources. It is really disappointing that the Conference Board did not do any original research to establish the state of e-learning in Canadian post-secondary education. By relying to large extent on a few selective interviews and a very limited range of previously published papers, the report suggests conclusions were arrived at early then evidence was looked for to support the conclusions. At no point does it provide any evidence to support statements such as ‘e-learning can make learning less expensive and more accessible.’ Yes, it can but we need evidence, and it would show (for instance see: Carey and Trick, 2013) that while relatively important gains in productivity can be made, there are also serious limitations to what can be done in this respect.

At the same time, it is an important report. It does make the excellent point that a great deal of investment in post-secondary education is driven by the need to maximize physical plant and that this seriously militates against the large investment needed in e-learning if it is to make a difference. Cutting ribbons on a new building is much more photogenic for politicians than enrolling another 1,000 students online.

However, when you look at the recommendations they are painfully obvious and in fact are being applied in many if not most Canadian post-secondary institutions, maybe too slowly or not aggressively enough but the report makes it clear why this is the case.

At the end of the day this report reads somewhat like the first draft of a masters’ dissertation on Canadian online learning. It does not provide the heft needed to bring about or rather accelerate the major changes I would agree that are needed in this area. In particular once again a major opportunity to provide some new, hard data on online learning, and particularly its potential for improving productivity, was missed.

Nevertheless I do hope that government policy makers, institutional leaders and corporations will pay attention to this report, because it does make clear that e-learning/online learning must be a critical component of a successful future for Canadian post-secondary education. We just need to invest more in it.


Carey, T., & Trick, D. (2013). How Online Learning Affects Productivity, Cost and Quality in Higher Education: An Environmental Scan and Review of the Literature. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Recording of webinar on choosing modes of delivery

What makes face-to-face teaching pedagogically unique - if anything?

What makes face-to-face teaching pedagogically unique – if anything?

This morning I gave my third webinar in the Contact North series based on my online, open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. There were 95 participants from 16 different countries.

In this webinar, which focused on Chapter 9 of Teaching in a Digital Age, I discussed with participants:

  • the continuum of technology-based learning and its conceptual and practical usefulness;
  • the key factors to consider when choosing appropriate modes of delivery;
  • how to move to blended/hybrid learning;
  • identifying the unique educational benefits of the campus compared to online learning.

A recording of the webinar, including discussion and participants’ comments, can be accessed here: https://contactnorth.webex.com/contactnorth/lsr.php?RCID=9a1a2cc8600d2c07a6426d4b15d7f9bd.

The next webinar, on quality in online and blended learning, will be at 1.00 pm EST, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. There will be a final, fifth webinar on the future impact of open educational resources on higher/post-secondary education later in 2016 (date to be announced).

For more details, and to access recordings of the two previous webinars, go to: http://teachonline.ca/teachingwebinars

Rethinking learning spaces in a digital age: an example from Singapore

Nanyang Technlogical University's new Learning Hub

Nanyang Technological University’s new Learning Hub

Hohenadel, K. (2015) Singapore’s New “Learning Hub” Rethinks University Classroom Design in the Internet Age SLATE, March 12

I have written in earlier posts about the need to rethink learning spaces as more and more institutions move to blended and hybrid learning. This design by Britain’s Thomas Heatherwick (who designed the Googleplex in Silicon Valley) incorporates ’56 “tutorial rooms” [that] don’t have corners or obvious fronts or backs and provide students with open spaces and terraces for collaboration and breaks.

In their description of the project, Heatherwick Studios state:

The purpose of a university is to foster togetherness and sociability, so that students can meet their fellow entrepreneurs, scientists and colleagues in a space that encourages collaboration.

Another inspiration for the hub was a wish to break down the traditional square forward-facing classrooms with a clear front and hierarchy, and move to a corner-less space, where teachers and students mix on a more equal basis.

In this model the students work together around shared tables, with teacher as facilitator and partner in the voyage of learning, rather than ‘master’ executing a top-down model of pedagogy.

The goal was to create a space that promotes accessibility, serendipity, and connectivity on a human scale.

It’s good to see an architect trying to create a building that supports the ‘magic of the campus’ in a digital age. I would have liked a little more detail though about the technology within the spaces, such as screens for sharing work.

It will be interesting to see if the design actually leads to changes in teaching methods, or whether faculty try to impose the hierarchical model of lecturing on these spaces.

Lastly, students seem to be very good at reducing architectural postulations to their bare essentials; students have already labelled the Learning Hub ‘dim sum’, because of its similarity to stacked dim sum steamer baskets.

Thanks to Clayton Wright for directing me to this.

dim sum steamer baskets 2

My five wishes for online learning in 2015

Image: © greatinternational students.blogspot.com, 2013

Image: © greatinternational students.blogspot.com, 2013

Predictions, schmedictions. No-one can guess the future but we can at least say what we would like to see. So here are my five wishes for 2015, with a guess at the odds of them happening.

1. Open textbooks.

My wish: faculty will start adopting open textbooks on a large scale in 2015. This is probably the easiest and best way to bring down the cost of education for students.

BC’s open textbook project should be in full swing in 2015, with the top 40 subject topics/disciplines covered with at least one text book per topic by the end of 2015. These topics cover both university and college programs, including apprenticeship and trades training (got to get those pipe fitters and welders  for LNG). All these books will have been peer reviewed by BC faculty.

These open textbooks will of course be available not only to BC institutions but any institution in the world that wants to use them. It will be fascinating to see who actually adopts these books. We could have the ridiculous situation where everyone else BUT BC universities and colleges are using them.

I have to declare an interest here, though. My own open textbook for faculty, teachers and instructors, Teaching in a Digital Age, will also be available. Already I know of at least three institutions already using it as a set book for courses, and it’s only two-thirds finished.

So my prediction:

  • the chance of  every one of the BC open textbooks being used in at least one institution world wide by the end of 2015: 99%
  • the chance of every BC public post-secondary institution using at least one of the open textbooks by 2015: 5%
  • I’ll be happy with at least 50% of Canadian post-secondary institutions using at least one open textbook in 2015. Open textbooks will then start to take off.

2. Open educational resources

My wish: faculty in each province or state will develop agreed province wide curricula for OERs. This may seem an odd wish, but what I see happening, at least in some Canadian provinces, is a huge amount of duplication of OER production, and on the other hand, very little cross-institutional adoption.

Let’s take an example: statistics. This is a subject often taught badly (sorry, where students often have difficulties) that crosses many subject disciplines: math, physics, psychology, sociology, biology, epidemiology, engineering, etc. So what are some institutions doing: developing core modules that can be shared within the institution across departments. So far, so good. But then it stops there.

Now at least in BC we have subject articulation committees that do a good job working out transfer agreements etc. Why not set up articulation committees for OERs? Instead of investing in new OERs in each institution, why not pool resources and either find existing or develop really good new OERs that combined would make up a sensible curriculum in statistics that can be shared by institutions across the system? Get people from stats departments in all the partnering institutions to work on it so they are more likely then to use the OERs themselves. (No, it doesn’t have to be every institution – just those that can work together.) No new money is needed for this as the money would have been spent anyway in developing online materials or courses.

The chances of this happening:

  • in at least one province: 50%

3. A brand new Canadian digital college

My wish: a new ‘green-field’, designed and built from scratch, institution that is conceived around the idea of digitally-based education designed to meet the learning needs of a digital age.

It’s been a long time since we’ve had a really new type of post-secondary institution in Canada: Tech University of BC (died in 2003); Ryerson University (2001); UOIT (2002); Royal Roads University (1995) Any suggestions for the last one?

A lot has happened in the last 20 years. Do we need such fixed battleships as campus-based institutions when what is really needed are fast destroyers? If you can swallow the premise that at least half of all studying within the next five years will be done online, even at the most traditional campus-based institution, what would a new college built around the idea of digital education look like? Emily Carr University of Art and Design should certainly be thinking about this as it moves to new premises in Vancouver in 2017. However, it is focusing on raising huge amounts of money for – yes, a new campus.

Now what if the government said: we will increase your annual operating budget by say 5-10 per cent if you can reduce the capital budget (once off) by 50 per cent? (Some creative accountancy needed here, of course, but hey, this is Canada). Or what if we took a green field site and looked for proposals based on that formula? What would learning spaces look like on such a campus? What would the learning look like? Where and how would students study? What kind of instructors or teachers would be needed? What kind of programs and delivery methods will make sense in 30 to 50 years time? It’s about time we created institutions that will be fit for the 22nd century and they need to be designed from scratch, using what we know today about media, technology and learning.

The chances of this happening (the commitment) in 2015:

  • in Alberta; 30%
  • in BC: 20%
  • in Ontario: 5%

4. A national research and development centre on digital education

My wish: a national research and development centre on digital education

In Canada, the Federal government has no jurisdiction over education: that is a provincial responsibility (and thank goodness for that – we get more innovation and diversity in a decentralised system)). However the Federal government does have responsibility for research and development. Now if you think, like I do, that Canada overall doesn’t do a bad job in developing and applying innovative approaches to teaching and learning (cMOOCs, anyone?), and that the future lies in effective digitally-based learning, it might be a strategic priority to ensure that Canada remains/becomes a world leader in this area.

At the moment though, there is hardly any sustainable research or development centre in online or digital education in this country (with all due respect to CIDER, which does a fantastic job with almost no resources – see what I mean?) Now you can build a hockey arena for $20 million and still  not get an NHL team, so why not put $100 million over five years into a world class research and development centre equivalent to say the Triumf project (particle physics) which got $222 million over five years in 2014.

This would have to be done right, though. No micro-managing from Ottawa, please. Write good terms of reference, hire good people, throw the money over the wall, and review the program after four years. Locate it preferably where innovation is happening (Atlantic Canada – Memorial University would be good – or the West – anywhere west of Kenora).

Here’s what I would like to see in its terms of reference:

  • develop, in conjunction with Stats Canada, an annual national survey of online and other forms of digital learning in post-secondary (and possibly k-12) education, similar to the Babson survey or even better the US Dept of Education IPEDs report
  • set up a joint advisory or governing board that includes representatives from related Canadian industry (e.g. Desire2Learn, Hootesuite), as well experts in online and digital education
  • spend as much on development as on basic research (most of which would be contracted out, following a research and development agenda developed through national, online consultation);
  • set some clear ‘deliverables’, such as regular reliable data and information on new innovations in Canadian digital education, new software or apps that become self-sustainable, testing and guidelines for faculty on emerging technologies, and above all successful, tested and evaluated design models for digital education
  • use the UK JISC as a model in terms of organisation (minimal central organization, networked and outsourced R&D).
  • hire me as Director (no, just kidding – I’m retired – really).

The chances of this happening in 2015:

  • with me as Director: 0.001%
  • without me as Director: 0.002%

5. Online International Students Canada (MOOCs for credit)

My wish: An online university preparation program for international students. This is a very simple idea. Offer free online programs for high school students anywhere in the world. The students with the best grades in the online program get automatic admission to a Canadian university and grants from the Canadian government to come to Canada and study, with half the time in Canada and the rest studying online from their home country. Target: 20,000 students a year. Total cost: $100 million a year (roughly).

There are literally millions of students who would probably qualify for a Canadian university, given the chance, but can’t afford either the education needed to reach the qualifications or the cost of coming to Canada. This program would offer online courses for the equivalent of the last year of high school in Canada, to enable international students to get the grades needed for entry to a Canadian university. The online courses would be offered free, but students would pay a small fee to take the online examinations, most of which would be computer graded.

The main costs in the program would be administrative (marketing, building a web site, finding existing online high school courses, and setting up the examination system), plus the real costs of travel for successful students and living and tuition costs while in Canada.

The advantages of the plan:

  • opens access to at least some low income or poor people in developing country who have access to some form of Internet access
  • simple to administer (the most difficult part will be getting Canadian universities to participate, even though there will be no direct cost)
  • real costs are lowered by students living at least half the time in their own country
  • students are more likely to remain in their home country after graduation and help build their own nation
  • Canadian universities would get some of the best students from developing countries at no or little direct cost
  • possibilities of stronger trading relations with emerging economies as a result.

The program would be funded by Foreign Affairs Canada (the former CIDA branch) and managed by the AUCC.

The chances of this happening in 2015:

  • 10% (well, it is an election year).

And your wishes for 2015?

Let me know what you would like to see in online learning in 2015 – and whether my ideas are as dumb as they look at first glance.