January 23, 2017

Online learning in 2016: a personal review
















Image: © Institute for Economics and Peace. Canada is ranked seventh most peaceful. We don’t know where it ranks though in terms of online learning.

A personal review

I am not going to do a review of all the developments in online learning in 2016 (for this, see Audrey Watters’ excellent HackEducation Trends). What I am going to do instead is review what I actually wrote about in 2016 in this blog, indicating what to me was of particular interest in online learning during 2016. I have identified 38 posts I wrote in which I have explored in some detail issues that bubbled up (at least for me) in 2016.

1. Tracking online learning

Building a national survey of online learning in Canada (134 hits)

A national survey of university online and distance learning in Canada (1,529 hits)

In the USA, fully online enrollments continue to grow in 2014 (91 hits)

Are you ready for blended learning? (389 hits)

What the Conference Board of Canada thinks about online learning (200 hits)

I indulged my obsession with knowing the extent to which online learning is penetrating post-secondary education with five posts on this topic. In a field undergoing such rapid changes, it is increasingly important to be able to track exactly what is going on. Thus a large part of my professional activity in 2016 has been devoted to establishing, almost from scratch, a national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions. I would have written more about this topic, but until the survey has been successfully conducted in 2017, I have preferred to keep a low profile on this issue.

However, during 2016 it did become clear to me, partly as a result of pilot testing of the questionnaire, and partly through visits to universities, that blended learning is not only gaining ground in Canadian post-secondary education at a much faster rate than I had anticipated, but is raising critical questions about what is best done online and what face-to-face, and how to prepare institutions and instructors for what is essentially a revolution in teaching.

This can be best summarized by what I wrote about the Conference Board of Canada’s report:

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.

2. Faculty development and training

Getting faculty and instructors into online learning (183 hits)

Initiating instructors to online learning: 10 fundamentals (529 hits)

Online learning for beginners: 10. Ready to go (+ nine other posts on this topic = 4,238 hits)

5 IDEAS for a pedagogy of online learning (708 hits)

This was the area to which I devoted the most space, with ten posts on ‘Online Learning for Beginners’, aimed at instructors resisting or unready for online learning. These ten posts were then edited and published by Contact North as the 10 Fundamentals of Teaching Online.

Two fundamental conclusions: we need not only better organizational strategies to ensure that faculty have the knowledge and training they will need for effective teaching and learning in a digital age, but we also need to develop new teaching strategies and approaches that can exploit the benefits and even more importantly avoid the pitfalls of blended learning and learning technologies. I have been trying to make a contribution in this area, but much more needs to be done.

3. Learning environments

Building an effective learning environment (6,173 hits)

EDEN 2016: Re-imagining Learning Environments (597 hits)

Culture and effective online learning environments (1,260 hits)

Closely linked to developing appropriate pedagogies for a digital age is the concept of designing appropriate learning environments, based on learners’ construction of knowledge and the role of instructors in guiding and fostering knowledge management, independent learning and other 21st century skills.

This approach I argued is a better ‘fit’ for learners in a digital age than thinking in terms of blended, hybrid or fully online learning, and recognizes that not only can technology to be used to design very different kinds of learning environments from school or campus based learning environments, but also that technology is just one component of a much richer learning context.

4. Experiential learning online

A full day of experiential learning in action (188 hits)

An example of online experiential learning: Ryerson University’s Law Practice Program (383 hits)

Is networked learning experiential learning? (163 hits)

These three posts explored a number of ways in which experiential learning is being done online, as this is a key methodology for developing skills in particular.

5. Open education

Acorns to oaks? British Columbia continues its progress with OERs (185 hits)

Talking numbers about open publishing and online learning (113 hits)

Towards an open pedagogy for online learning (385 hits)

These posts also tracked the development of open publishing and open educational resources, particularly in British Columbia, leading me to conclude that the OER ‘movement’ has far too narrow a concept of open-ness and that in its place we need an open pedagogy into which open educational resources are again just one component, and perhaps not the most significant.

6. Technology applications in online learning

An excellent guide to multimedia course design (659 hits)

Is video a threat to learning management systems? (603 hits)

Some comments on synchronous online learning technologies (231 hits)

Amongst all the hype about augmented reality, learning analytics and the application of artificial intelligence, I found it more useful to look at some of the technologies that are in everyday use in online learning, and how these could best be used.

7. Technology and alienation

Technology and alienation: online learning and labour market needs (319 hits)

Technology and alienation: symptoms, causes and a framework for discussion (512 hits)

Technology, alienation and the role of education: an introduction (375 hits)

Automation or empowerment: online learning at the crossroads (1,571 hits)

Why digital technology is not necessarily the answer to your problem (474 hits)

These were more philosophical pieces, prompted to some extent by the wider concerns of the impact of technology on jobs and how that has influenced Brexit and the Trump phenomena.

Nevertheless this issue is also very relevant to the teaching context. In particular I was challenging the ‘Silicon Valley’ assumption that computers will eventually replace the need for teachers, and in particular the danger of using algorithms in teaching without knowing who wrote the algorithms, what their philosophy of teaching is, and thus what assumptions have been built into the use of data.

Image: Applift

Image: Applift

8. Learning analytics

Learning analytics and learning design at the UK Open University (90 hits)

Examining ethical and privacy issues surrounding learning analytics (321 hits)

Continuing more or less the same theme of analysing the downside as well as the upside of technology in education, these two posts looked at how some institutions, and the UK Open University in particular, are being thoughtful about the implications of learning analytics, and building in policies for protecting privacy and gaining student ‘social license’ for the use of analytics.

9. Assessment

Developing a next generation online learning assessment system (532 hits)

This is an area where much more work needs to be done. If we are to develop new or better pedagogies for a digital age, we will also need better assessment methods. Unfortunately the focus once again appears to be more on the tools of assessment, such as online proctoring, where large gains have been made in 2016, but which still focus on proctoring traditional assessment procedures such as time-restricted exams, multiple choice tests and essay writing. What we need are new methods of assessment that focus on measuring the types of knowledge and skills that are needed in a digital age.

For instance, e-portfolios have held a lot of promise for a long time, but are still being used and evaluated at a painfully slow rate. They do offer though one method for assessment that reflects much better the needs of assessing 21st century knowledge and skills. However we need more imagination and creativity in developing new assessment methods for measuring the knowledge and skills needed for a digital age.

That was the year that was

Well, it was 2016 from the perspective of someone no longer teaching online or managing online learning:

  • How far off am I, from your perspective?
  • What were the most significant developments for you in online learning in 2016?
  • What did I miss that you think should have been included? Perhaps I can focus on this next year.

I have one more post looking at 2016 to come, but that will be more personal, looking at my whole range of online learning activities in 2016.

In the meantime have a great seasonal break and I will be back in touch some time in the new year.

Towards an open pedagogy for online learning

Image: © University of Victoria, BC

Image: © University of Victoria, BC

The problems with OER

I was interviewed recently by a reporter doing an article on OER (open educational resources) and I found myself being much more negative than I expected, since I very much support the principle of open-ness in education. In particular, I pointed out that OER, while slowly growing in acceptance, are still used for a tiny minority of teaching in North American universities and colleges. For instance, open textbooks are a no brainer, given the enormous savings they can bring to students, but even in the very few state or provincial jurisdictions that have an open textbook program, the take-up is still very slow.

I have written elsewhere in more detail about why this is so, but here is a summary of the reasons:

  • lack of suitable OER: finding the right OER for the right context. This is a problem that is slowly disappearing, as more OER become available, but it is still difficult to find exactly the right kind of OER to fit a particular teaching context in too many instances. It is though a limitation that I believe will not last for much longer (for the reasons for this, read on).
  • the poor quality of what does exist. This is not so much the quality of content, but the quality of production. Most OER are created by an individual instructor working alone, or at best with an instructional designer. This is the cottage industry approach to design. I have been on funding review committees where institutions throughout a province are bidding for funds for course development or OER production. In one case I reviewed requests from about eight different institutions for funds to produce OER for statistics. Each institution (or rather faculty member) made its proposal in isolation of the others. I strongly recommended that the eight faculty members got together and designed a set of OER together that would benefit from a larger input of expertise and resources. That way all eight institutions were likely to use the combined OER, and the OER would likely be of a much higher quality as a result.
  • the benefits are less for instructors than students. Faculty for instance set the textbook requirement. They don’t have to pay for the book themselves in most cases. With the textbook often comes a whole package of support materials from the publisher, such as tests, supplementary materials, and model answers (which is why the textbook is so expensive). This makes life easier for instructors but it is the students who have to pay the cost.
  • OER take away the ‘ownership’ of knowledge from the instructor. Instructors do not see themselves as merely distributors of information, a conveyor belt along which ‘knowledge’ passes, but as constructors of knowledge. They see their lecture as unique and individual, something the student cannot get from someone else. And often it is unique, with an instructor’s personal spin on a topic. OER’s take away from instructors that which they see as being most important about their teaching: their unique perspective on a topic.
  • and now we come to what I think is the main problem with OER: OER do not make much sense out of context. Too often the approach is to create an OER then hope that others will find applications for it. But this assumes that knowledge is like a set of bricks. All you have to do is to collect bricks of knowledge together, add a little  mortar, and lo, you have a course. The instructor chooses the bricks and the students apply the mortar. Or you have a course but you need to fill some holes in it with OER. I suggest these are false metaphors for teaching, or at least for how people learn. You need a context, a pedagogy, where it makes sense to use open resources.

Towards an open pedagogy

I am making three separate but inter-linked arguments here:

  • OER are too narrowly defined and conceptualized
  • we need to design teaching in such a way that it is not just sensible to use OER but unavoidable
  • we should start by defining what we are trying to achieve, then identify how OER will enable this.

So I will start with the last argument first.

Developing the knowledge and skills needed in the 21st century

Again I have written extensively about this (see Chapter 1 of Teaching in a Digital Age), but in essence we need to focus specifically on developing core ‘soft’ or ‘intellectual’ skills in our students, and especially the core skills of independent learning and knowledge management. Put in terms of learning outcomes, in a world where the content component of knowledge is constantly developing and growing, students need to learn independently so they can continue to learn after graduation, and students also need to know how to find, analyse, evaluate, and apply knowledge.

If we want students to develop these and other ‘soft’ skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, evidence-based argumentation, what teaching methods or pedagogy should we adopt and how would it differ from what we do now?

The need for teaching methods that are open rather than closed

The first thing we should recognise is that in a lecture based methodology, it is the instructor doing the knowledge management, not the student. The instructor (or his or her colleagues) decide the curriculum, the required reading, what should be covered in each lecture, how it should be structured, and what should be assessed. There is little independence for the learner – either do what you are instructed to do, or fail. That is a closed approach to teaching.

I am suggesting that we need to flip this model on its head. It should ultimately be the students learning and deciding what content is important, how it should be structured, how it can be applied. The role of the instructor then would not be to choose, organise and deliver content, but to structure the teaching to enable students to do this effectively themselves.

This also should not be a sudden process, where students suddenly switch from a lecture-based format as an undergraduate to a more open structure as a post-graduate, but a process that is slowly and increasingly developed throughout the undergraduate program or a two-year college program where soft skills are considered important. One way – although there are many others – of doing this is through project- or problem-based learning, where students start with real challenges then develop the knowledge and skills needed to address such challenges.

This does not mean we no longer need subject specialists or content experts. Indeed, a deep understanding of a subject domain is essential if students are to be steered and guided and properly assessed. However, the role of the subject specialist is fundamentally changed. He or she is now required to set their specialist knowledge in a context that enables student discovery and exploration, and student responsibility for learning. The specialist’s role now is to support learning, by providing appropriate learning contexts, guidance to students, criteria for assessing the quality of information, and quality standards for problem-solving, knowledge management and critical thinking, etc.

A new definition of open resources

Here I will be arguing for a radical change: the dropping of the term ‘educational’ from OER.

If students are to develop the skills identified earlier, they will need access to resources: research papers, reports from commissions, case-study material, books, first-hand reports, YouTube video, a wide range of opinions or arguments about particular topics, as well as the increasing amount of specifically named open educational resources, such as recorded lectures from MIT and other leading research universities.

Indeed, increasingly all knowledge is becoming open and easily accessible online. All publicly funded research in many countries must now be made available through open access journals, increasingly government and even some commercial data (think government commission reports, environmental assessments, public statistics, meteorological models) are now openly accessible online, and this will become more and more the norm. In other words, all content is becoming more free and more accessible, especially online.

With that comes of course more unreliable information, more false truths, and more deliberate propaganda. What better preparation for our students’ future is there than equipping them with the knowledge and skills to sift through this mass of contradictory information?  What better than to make them really good at identifying the true from the false, to evaluate the strength of an argument, to assess the evidence used to support an argument, whatever the subject domain? To do this though means exposing them to a wide range of openly accessible content, and providing the guidance and criteria, and the necessary prior knowledge, that they will need to make these decisions.

But we cannot do this if we restrict our students to already ‘approved’ OER. All content eventually becomes an educational resource, a means to help students to differentiate, evaluate and decide. By naming content as ‘educational’ we are already validating its ‘truth’ – we are in fact closing the mind to challenge. What we want is access to open resources – full stop. Let’s get rid of the term OER and instead fight for an open pedagogy.

Report on SFU’s experiences of teaching with technology

Simon Fraser University (on a rare day when it wasn't raining)

Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby campus (on a rare day when it wasn’t raining)

I always enjoy going to a university or college and seeing how they are using learning technologies. I am always a little surprised and I am also usually intrigued by some unexpected application, and today’s DemoFest at Simon Fraser University was no exception.

About Simon Fraser University

SFU has just over 35,000 students with campuses in Burnaby, Vancouver downtown, and Surrey, all in the lower mainland of British Columbia, Canada.

For a long time it has had the largest distance education program in British Columbia, but the rapid development of fully online and blended learning in other BC and Canadian institutions means that other institutions are rapidly gaining ground. It is also the academic base for Linda Harasim, who is a Professor of Communications at SFU.

As with many Canadian universities, most of the DE programs are run out of the Centre for Online and Distance Learning in Continuing Studies at SFU. However, the university also has a large Teaching and Learning Centre, which provides a range of services including learning technology support to the faculty on campus.

The university recently adopted Canvas as its main LMS.

I was spending most of the day at SFU for two reasons:

  • to identify possible cases for Contact North’s ‘pockets of innovation’ project
  • to report on the survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions.

I will be giving more information on both these projects in separate blog posts coming shortly.

The DemoFest

DEMOfest 2016 is about how instructors are using ….technologies in ways that produce exciting and original educational experiences leading to student engagement and strong learning outcomes.

Making lectures interactive

Not surprisingly, several of the short, 10 minute presentations were focused on tools used in classroom teaching or lecturing. In particular, the tools are going mobile, in the form of apps that students can use on their mobile phones, tablets or laptops. I was particularly impressed with TopHat, which incorporates online quizzes and tests, attendance checks, and  discussion. REEF Polling is a similar development developed by iClicker, which is effectively a mobile app version of iClicker. Both provide students and instructors with an online record of their classroom activity on the app.

There was also a couple of sessions on lecture theatre technologies. As in other universities, lecturers can find a range of different interfaces for managing lecture theatre facilities. SFU has a project that will result in a common, simple interface that will be available throughout the different campuses of the universities, much to the relief of faculty and visiting speakers who at the moment have no idea what to expect when entering an unfamiliar lecture theatre or classroom.. There was also another session on the limits of lecture capture and how to use video to make learning more engaging.

Online learning development

However, I found nothing here (or anywhere else, for that matter) that has convinced me that there is a future in the large lecture class. Most of the technology enhancements, although improvements on the straight ‘talk’ lecture, are still just lipstick on a pig.

The online learning developments were much more interesting:

  • online proctoring: Proctorio. This was a demonstration of the ingenuity of students in cheating in online assessment and even greater ingenuity in preventing them from doing it. Proctorio is a powerful web-based automated proctoring system that basically takes control of whatever device the student is using to do an online assessment and records their entire online activity during the exam. Instructors/exam supervisors though have options as to exactly what features they can control, such as locked screens, blocking use of other urls, etc.. Students just sign in and take the exam at any time set by the instructor. Proctorio provides the instructor with a complete record of students’ online activity during the exam, including a rating of the ‘suspiciousness’ of the student’s online exam activity.
  • peer evaluation and team-based learning: SFU has a graduate diploma in business where students are required to work in teams, specifically to build team approaches to problem-solving and business solutions. Although the instructor assesses both the individual and group assignments, students evaluate each other on their contribution to the team activities. The demonstration also showed how peer assessment was handled within the Canvas LMS. It was a good example of best practices in peer-to-peer assessment.
  • Dialectical Map: an argument visualization tool developed at SFU. Joan Sharp, Professor of Biological Sciences, and her research colleague, Hui Niu, have developed a simple, interactive, web-based tool that facilitates the development of argumentation for science students. Somewhat to my surprise, research evidence shows that science students are often poor at argumentation, even in the upper years of an undergraduate program. This tool enables a question to be posed by an instructor at the tope of the map, such as ‘Should the BC government allow fracking for oil?’ or ‘Should the BC government stop the culling of wolves to protect caribou?’ The online map is split into two parts, ‘pro’ and ‘con’, with boxes for the rationale, and linked boxes for the evidence to support each rationale offered. Students type in their answers to the boxes (both pro and con) and have a box at the bottom to write their conclusion(s) from the argument. Students can rate the strength of each rationale. All the boxes in a map can be printed out, giving a detailed record of the arguments for and against, the evidence in support of the arguments and the student’s conclusion.  Hui Niu has done extensive research on the effectiveness of the tool, and has found that the use of the tool has substantially increased students’ performance on argument-based assignments/assessment.

General comments

I was very grateful for the invitation and enjoyed nearly all the presentations. The Teaching and Learning Centre is encouraging research into learning technologies, particularly developing a support infrastructure for OERs and looking at ways to use big data for the analysis and support of learning. This practical, applied research is being led by Lynda Williams, the Manager of the Learn tech team, and is being done in collaboration with both faculty and graduate students from different departments.

Students and a professor of computer science worked with the IT division and Ancillary Services to develop a student app for the university called SFU Snap, as part of a computer science course. This not only provides details of the bus services to and from SFU at any time, but also provides students with an interactive map so they can find their classrooms. Anyone who has tried to find their way around SFU (built at multi-levels into a mountain) will understand how valuable such an app must be, not just to students but also to visitors.

So thank you, everyone at the Teaching and Learning Centre at SFU for a very interesting and useful day.


Initiating instructors to online learning: 10 fundamentals


Click to download the pdf

What? Not ANOTHER book from me? Well, no, not quite.

Teaching in a Digital Age‘ has been a great success but it appears it is being primarily used by faculty and instructors already committed to online learning, or on courses for post-graduate students, who don’t have much choice if it is set reading. That’s great, but even though it’s been downloaded over 40,000 times and is being translated into seven languages, there are still hundreds of thousands of faculty and instructors in North America alone who are either not interested in teaching online or are very nervous about it. The Babson 2013 survey for instance found that only 30 percent of chief academic officers believe their faculty accept the value and legitimacy of online education.  This rate is lower than the rate recorded in 2004.

One reason for this is that there are many misconceptions about online learning. At the same time, there are legitimate concerns about online learning being more work or about the quality of online instruction. Of course, reading Teaching in a Digital Age might help dispel the misconceptions and the concerns, but instructors resistant to online learning are not likely to engage with a 500 page textbook in the first place.

I therefore did a series of blog posts aimed at encouraging ‘resistant’ faculty and instructors to at least give online learning a try. The series was initially called ‘Online learning for beginners‘. Contact North liked the idea and suggested that the 10 posts should be re-edited into a 37 page booklet that can be given to faculty and instructors. This booklet is now available. It can either be downloaded as a pdf from the Contact North|Contact Nord website, or printed locally on demand and then can be physically given to instructors. Of course it is likely to be most effective if used in conjunction with Teaching in a Digital Age, but the booklet is written to stand on its own.

So I am hoping that you will find the 10 Fundamentals booklet useful, that you will pass it on or make it available to ‘resistant’ or undecided instructors, and that this will encourage them to seriously consider teaching online.

Let me know whether you think the booklet is likely to work, and, if not, what else could be done.

More webinars on ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’

Linda Harasim’s pedagogy of group discussion (from Harasim, 2012): a topic for discussion in webinar 1?

Linda Harasim’s pedagogy of group discussion (from Harasim, 2012): a topic for discussion in webinar 1?

Last year I did a series of five webinars on topics from my online, open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’ These proved to be very popular, with up to 200 requests for participation for each webinar. We limited registrants though to a maximum of 60 for each webinar, and there have been more than 20,000 downloads since the first webinars were offered, so I am grateful to Contact North for offering a second round of these webinars.

The topics I will be covering in these webinars, which as well as being live will also be available in recorded form, will be:

  1. Teaching with Technology – How to Use the Best Practice Models and Options (covers chapters 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 of Teaching in a Digital  Age)
  2. Choosing Media – How They Differ and How to Make the Best Choices for My Teaching (covers chapters 6, 7 and 8 of Teaching in a Digital Age)
  3. Making the Choice – How to Choose between Online, Blended or Campus-Based Delivery for Effective Learning (covers chapters 9 of Teaching in a Digital Age)
  4. Ensuring Quality – How to Design and Deliver Quality Courses in a Supportive Learning Environment (covers chapter 11 and Appendix 1 of Teaching in a Digital Age)
  5. How Open Education will Revolutionize Higher Education: the Impact of Open Research, Open Textbooks, OERs and Open Data on Course Design and Delivery (covers Chapter 10 of Teaching in a Digital Age)

Register today for the first 60-minute webinar on Teaching with Technology – How to Use Best Practice Models and Options on Tuesday, October 18, 2016, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern. 

Webinar 1: Teaching with Technology – How to Use Best Practice Models and Options

In this webinar, we will discuss:

  • what kind of knowledge or skills students need in a digital age;
  • what kind of learning theories or pedagogy will best suit your subject area or preferred teaching style
  • what teaching approaches are most appropriate for a digital age.

The webinar features a short introduction to the topics, and I will be posing a series of questions for discussion amongst the webinar participants on the topic and an open Q&A. You are advised to read the first five chapters of the book in advance of the webinar, as I will not be able to do justice to each of the topics in a short introduction.

Registration is limited to keep the session interactive so register early to avoid disappointment.

The remaining four webinars will be held in November, December, January and February at the same times. Watch this space for more details nearer the dates.