October 25, 2016

Automation or empowerment: online learning at the crossroads

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Image: Applift

Image: AppLift, 2015

You are probably, like me, getting tired of the different predictions for 2016. So I’m not going to do my usual look forward for the year for individual developments in online learning. Instead, I want to raise a fundamental question about which direction online learning should be heading in the future, because the next year could turn out to be very significant in determining the future of online learning.

The key question we face is whether online learning should aim to replace teachers and instructors through automation, or whether technology should be used to empower not only teachers but also learners. Of course, the answer will always be a mix of both, but getting the balance right is critical.

An old but increasingly important question

This question, automation or human empowerment, is not new. It was raised by B.F. Skinner (1968) when he developed teaching machines in the early 1960s. He thought teaching machines would eventually replace teachers. On the other hand, Seymour Papert (1980) wanted computing to empower learners, not to teach them directly. In the early 1980s Papert got children to write computer code to improve the way they think and to solve problems. Papert was strongly influenced by Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, and in particular that children constructed rather than absorbed knowledge.

In the 1980s, as personal computers became more common, computer-assisted learning (CAL or CAD) became popular, using computer-marked tests and early forms of adaptive learning. Also in the 1980s the first developments in artificial intelligence were applied, in the form of intelligent math tutoring. Great predictions were made then, as now, about the potential of AI to replace teachers.

Then along came the Internet. Following my first introduction to the Internet in a friend’s basement in Vancouver, I published an article in the first edition of the Journal of Distance Education, entitled ‘Computer-assisted learning or communications: which way for IT in distance education?’ (1986). In this paper I argued that the real value of the Internet and computing was to enable asynchronous interaction and communication between teacher and learners, and between learners themselves, rather than as teaching machines. This push towards a more constructivist approach to the use of computing in education was encapsulated in Mason and Kaye’s book, Mindweave (1989). Linda Harasim has since argued that online collaborative learning is an important theory of learning in its own right (Harasim, 2012).

In the 1990s, David Noble of York University attacked online learning in particular for turning universities into ‘Digital Diploma Mills’:

‘universities are not only undergoing a technological transformation. Beneath that change, and camouflaged by it, lies another: the commercialization of higher education.’

Noble (1998) argued that

‘high technology, at these universities, is often used not to ……improve teaching and research, but to replace the visions and voices of less-prestigious faculty with the second-hand and reified product of academic “superstars”.

However, contrary to Noble’s warnings, for fifteen years most university online courses followed more the route of interaction and communication between teachers and students than computer-assisted learning or video lectures, and Noble’s arguments were easily dismissed or forgotten.

Then along came lecture capture and with it, in 2011, Massive Open Online Courses (xMOOCs) from Coursera, Udacity and edX, driven by elite, highly selective universities, with their claims of making the best professors in the world available to everyone for free. Noble’s nightmare suddenly became very real. At the same time, these MOOCs have resulted in much more interest in big data, learning analytics, a revival of adaptive learning, and claims that artificial intelligence will revolutionize education, since automation is essential for managing such massive courses.

Thus we are now seeing a big swing back to the automation of learning, driven by powerful computing developments, Silicon Valley start-up thinking, and a sustained political push from those that want to commercialize education (more on this later). Underlying these developments is a fundamental conflict of philosophies and pedagogies, with automation being driven by an objectivist/behaviourist view of the world, compared with the constructivist approaches of online collaborative learning.

In other words, there are increasingly stark choices to be made about the future of online learning. Indeed, it is almost too late – I fear the forces of automation are winning – which is why 2016 will be such a pivotal year in this debate.

Automation and the commercialization of education

These developments in technology are being accompanied by a big push in the United States, China, India and other countries towards the commercialization of online learning. In other words, education is being seen increasingly as a commodity that can be bought and sold. This is not through the previous and largely discredited digital diploma mills of the for-profit online universities such as the University of Phoenix that David Noble feared, but rather through the encouragement and support of commercial computer companies moving into the education field, companies such as Coursera, Lynda.com and Udacity.

Audrey Watters and EdSurge both produced lists of EdTech ‘deals’ in 2015 totalling between $1-$2 billion. Yes, that’s right, that’s $1-$2 billion in investment in private ed tech companies in the USA (and China) in one year alone. At the same time, entrepreneurs are struggling to develop sustainable business models for ed tech investment, because with education funded publicly, a ‘true’ market is restricted. Politicians, entrepreneurs and policy makers on the right in the USA increasingly see a move to automation as a way of reducing government expenditure on education, and one means by which to ‘free up the market’.

Another development that threatens the public education model is the move by very rich entrepreneurs such as the Gates, the Hewletts and the Zuckerbergs to move their massive personal wealth into ‘charitable’ foundations or corporations and use this money for their pet ‘educational’ initiatives that also have indirect benefits for their businesses. Ian McGugan (2015) in the Globe and Mail newspaper estimates that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is worth potentially $45 billion, and one of its purposes is to promote the personalization of learning (another name hi-jacked by computer scientists; it’s a more human way of describing adaptive learning). Since one way Facebook makes its money is by selling personal data, forgive my suspicions that the Zuckerberg initiative is a not-so-obvious way of collecting data on future high earners. At the same time, the Chang Zuckerberg initiative enables the Zuckerberg’s to avoid paying tax on their profits from Facebook. Instead then of paying taxes that could be used to support public education, these immensely rich foundations enable a few entrepreneurs to set the agenda for how computing will be used in education.

Why not?

Technology is disrupting nearly every other business and profession, so why not education? Higher education in particular requires a huge amount of money, mostly raised through taxes and tuition fees, and it is difficult to tie results directly to investment. Surely we should be looking at ways in which technology can change higher education so that it is more accessible, more affordable and more effective in developing the knowledge and skills required in today’s and tomorrow’s society?

Absolutely. It is not so much the need for change that I am challenging, but the means by which this change is being promoted. In essence, a move to automated learning, while saving costs, will not improve the learning that matters, and particularly the outcomes needed in a digital age, namely, the high level intellectual skills of critical thinking, innovation, entrepreneurship, problem-solving , high-level multimedia communication, and above all, effective knowledge management.

To understand why automated approaches to learning are inappropriate to the needs of the 21st century we need to look particularly at the tools and methods being proposed.

The problems with automating learning

The main challenge for computer-directed learning such as information transmission and management through Internet-distributed video lectures, computer-marked assessments, adaptive learning, learning analytics, and artificial intelligence is that they are based on a model of learning that has limited applications. Behaviourism works well in assisting rote memory and basic levels of comprehension, but does not enable or facilitate deep learning, critical thinking and the other skills that are essential for learners in a digital age.

R. and D. Susskind (2015) in particular argue that there is a new age in artificial intelligence and adaptive learning driven primarily by what they call the brute force of more powerful computing. Why AI failed so dramatically in the 1980s, they argue, was because computer scientists tried to mimic the way that humans think, and computers then did not have the capacity to handle information in the way they do now. When however we use the power of today’s computing, it can solve previously intractable problems through analysis of massive amounts of data in ways that humans had not considered.

There are several problems with this argument. The first is that the Susskinds are correct in that computers operate differently from humans. Computers are mechanical and work basically on a binary operating system. Humans are biological and operate in a far more sophisticated way, capable of language creation as well as language interpretation, and use intuition as well as deductive thinking. Emotion as well as memory drives human behaviour, including learning. Furthermore humans are social animals, and depend heavily on social contact with other humans for learning. In essence humans learn differently from the way machine automation operates.

Unfortunately, computer scientists frequently ignore or are unaware of the research into human learning. In particular they are unaware that learning is largely developmental and constructed, and instead impose an old and less appropriate method of teaching based on behaviourism and an objectivist epistemology. If though we want to develop the skills and knowledge needed in a digital age, we need a more constructivist approach to learning.

Supporters of automation also make another mistake in over-estimating or misunderstanding how AI and learning analytics operate in education. These tools reflect a highly objectivist approach to teaching, where procedures can be analysed and systematised in advance. However, although we know a great deal about learning in general, we still know very little about how thinking and decision-making operate biologically in individual cases. At the same time, although brain research is promising to unlock some of these secrets, most brain scientists argue that while we are beginning to understand the relationship between brain activity and very specific forms of behaviour, there is a huge distance to travel before we can explain how these mechanisms affect learning in general or how an individual learns in particular. There are too many variables (such as emotion, memory, perception, communication, as well as neural activity) at play to find an isomorphic fit between the firing of neurons and computer ‘intelligence’.

The danger then with automation is that we drive humans to learn in ways that best suit how machines operate, and thus deny humans the potential of developing the higher levels of thinking that make humans different from machines. For instance, humans are better than machines at dealing with volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous situations, which is where we find ourselves in today’s society.

Lastly, both AI and adaptive learning depend on algorithms that predict or direct human behaviour. These algorithms though are not transparent to the end users. To give an example, learning analytics are being used to identify students at high risk of failure, based on correlations of previous behaviour online by previous students. However, for an individual, should a software program be making the decision as to whether that person is suitable for higher education or a particular course? If so, should that person know the grounds on which they are considered unsuitable and be able to challenge the algorithm or at least the principles on which that algorithm is based? Who makes the decision about these algorithms – a computer scientist using correlated data, or an educator concerned with equitable access? The more we try to automate learning, the greater the danger of unintended consequences, and the more need for educators rather than computer scientists to control the decision-making.

The way forward

In the past, I used to think of computer scientists as colleagues and friends in designing and delivering online learning. I am now increasingly seeing at least some of them as the enemy. This is largely to do with the hubris of Silicon Valley, which believes that computer scientists can solve any problem without knowing anything about the problem itself. MOOCs based on recorded lectures are a perfect example of this, being developed primarily by a few computer scientists from Stanford (and unfortunately blindly copied by many people in universities who should have known better.)

We need to start with the problem, which is how do we prepare learners for the knowledge and skills they will need in today’s society. I have argued (Bates, 2015) that we need to develop, in very large numbers of people, high level intellectual and practical skills that require the construction and development of knowledge, and that enable learners to find, analyse, evaluate and apply knowledge appropriately.

This requires a constructivist approach to learning which cannot be appropriately automated, as it depends on high quality interaction between knowledge experts and learners. There are many ways to accomplish this, and technology can play a leading role, by enabling easy access to knowledge, providing opportunities for practice in experientially-based learning environments, linking communities of scholars and learners together, providing open access to unlimited learning resources, and above all by enabling students to use technology to access, organise and demonstrate their knowledge appropriately.

These activities and approaches do not easily lend themselves to massive economies of scale through automation, although they do enable more effective outcomes and possibly some smaller economies of scale. Automation can be helpful in developing some of the foundations of learning, such as basic comprehension or language acquisition. But at the heart of developing the knowledge and skills needed in today’s society, the role of a human teacher, instructor or guide will remain absolutely essential. Certainly, the roles of teachers and instructors will need to change quite dramatically, teacher training and faculty development will be critical for success, and we need to use technology to enable students to take more responsibility for their own learning, but it is a dangerous illusion to believe that automation is the solution to learning in the 21st century.

Protecting the future

There are several practical steps that need to be taken to prevent the automation of teaching.

  1. Educators – and in particular university presidents and senior civil servants with responsibility for education – need to speak out clearly about the dangers of automation, and the technology alternatives available that still exploit its potential and will lead to greater cost-effectiveness. This is not an argument against the use of technology in education, but the need to use it wisely so we get the kind of educated population we need in the 21st century.
  2. Computer scientists need to show more respect to educators and be less arrogant. This means working collaboratively with educators, and treating them as equals.
  3. We – teachers and educational technologists – need to apply in our own work and disseminate better to those outside education what we already know about effective learning and teaching.
  4. Faculty and teachers need to develop compelling technology alternatives to automation that focus on the skills and knowledge needed in a digital age, such as:
    • experiential learning through virtual reality (e.g. Loyalist College’s training of border service agents)
    • networking learners online with working professionals, to solve real world problems (e.g. by developing a program similar to McMaster’s integrated science program for online/blended delivery)
    • building strong communities of practice through connectivist MOOCs (e.g. on climate change or mental health) to solve global problems
    • empowering students to use social media to research and demonstrate their knowledge through multimedia e-portfolios (e.g. UBC’s ETEC 522)
    • designing openly accessible high quality, student-activated simulations and games but designed and monitored by experts in the subject area.
  5. Governments need to put as much money into research into learning and educational technology as they do into innovation in industry. Without better and more defensible theories of learning suitable for a digital age, we are open to any quack or opportunist who believes he or she has the best snake oil. More importantly, with better theory and knowledge of learning disseminated and applied appropriately, we can have a much more competitive workforce and a more just society.
  6. We need to educate our politicians about the dangers of commercialization in education through the automation of learning and fight for a more equal society where the financial returns on technology applications are more equally shared.
  7. Become edupunks and take back the web from powerful commercial interests by using open source, low cost, easy to use tools in education that protect our privacy and enable learners and teachers to control how they are used.

That should keep you busy in 2016.

Your views are of course welcome – unless you are a bot.


Bates, A. (1986) Computer assisted learning or communications: which way for information technology in distance education? Journal of Distance Education Vol. 1, No. 1

Bates, A. (2015) Teaching in a Digital Age Victoria BC: BCcampus

Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Mason, R. and Kaye, A (Eds).(1989)  Mindweave: communication, computers and distance education. Oxford: Pergamon

McGugan, I. (2015)Why the Zuckerberg donation is not a bundle of joy, Globe and Mail, December 2

Noble, D. (1998) Digital Diploma Mills, Monthly Review http://monthlyreview.org/product/digital_diploma_mills/

Papert, S. (1980) Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas New York: Basic Books

Skinner, B. (1968)  The Technology of Teaching, 1968 New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts

Susskind, R. and Susskind, D. (2015) The Future of the Professions: How Technology will Change the Work of Human Experts Oxford UK: Oxford University Press

Watters, A. (2015) The Business of EdTech, Hack Edu, undated http://2015trends.hackeducation.com/business.html

Winters, M. (2015) Christmas Bonus! US Edtech Sets Record With $1.85 Billion Raised in 2015 EdSurge, December 21 https://www.edsurge.com/news/2015-12-21-christmas-bonus-us-edtech-sets-record-with-1-85-billion-raised-in-2015

Spotlight on online experiential learning at Ryerson University

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Lake Devo is one of several e-learning initiatives at Ryerson University

Lake Devo is one of several e-learning initiatives at Ryerson University

A week or so ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Digital Education Strategies team at the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University, Toronto.

Ryerson is well known for its DMZ (formerly the Digital Media Zone), one of Canada’s largest business incubators for emerging tech start-ups, but it is by no means the only centre of innovation at Ryerson. As well as being responsible for the design of online learning courses at Ryerson, the Centre for Digital Education Strategies (CDES) has several very interesting e-learning initiatives. 

Online courses

The ‘bread and butter’ work of the CDES is the over 400 online courses, including around 300 degree-credit online and hybrid courses, four part-time degree online and blended programs, 23 fully online certificates, and 22 blended certificates. CDES serves roughly 23,000 online course enrolments a year. Ryerson recently moved from Blackboard to Desire2Learn learning management system to support most of its online courses.

Because of its expertise in online course design, Chang School’s Digital Education Strategies team has been engaged in a number of other innovative e-learning initiatives. The DES team has also built business efficiency tools and interactive learning applications. Each of these deserves a blog post on its own, but in this post I want to give a quick overview of some of the other work of the Centre.

1. Lake Devo

Lake Devo is a virtual learning environment enabling online role-play activity in an educational context. Learners work synchronously, using visual, audio, and text elements to create avatars and interact in online role-play scenarios.

The Lake Devo environment is fully equipped to allow an instructor to set up his/her class as an online collaborative community. He/she may enter students’ information, configure working groups and have the system issue login information to all users.

Lake Devo has been used by a total of ten online instructors, for at least eight different courses, involving over 35 sections of students. Students have developed over 100 different scenarios in Lake Devo (see “Gallery” for examples). 

 2. The Law Practice Program

This unique alternative to traditional articling was established by the Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC) and Ryerson University to provide new options and flexibility to meet the legal profession’s licensing requirements for law graduates in Ontario.

The program features interactive web-based collaboration tasks that replicate the experience of working in a law firm. This virtual firm activity is combined with expert guidance and mentorship to equip candidates with the skills and competencies required for effective practice. For a promo video, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKsu6P3ZUVQ

 3. Serious games

Mental health assessment during a home visit’ is a video-based game in which users practice their skills in a setting that is realistic and allows the user to make clinical choices within a safe environment.

This is another collaborative project involving Ryerson nursing faculty and professors from George Brown College and Centennial College.

4. Professional Development for Online Instructors

 As part of its commitment to offer high quality learning experiences for students, the CDES offers professional development for online instructors. Teaching Adult Learners Online (TALO) is a four-week, hands-on program designed to model effective facilitation techniques, and provide instructors with insight into the learning experiences of online students, while promoting an engaging community of practice.

Drawing on promising practices in online pedagogy and examples from leading open resources such as CU Open, TALO offers a unique experience that is helping to increase online instructor capacity and diversity.

I will do a more complete blog post on each of these initiatives over the next week or so.

Other initiatives

The Centre for Digital Education Strategies is involved in many other e-learning initiatives, including:

  • Providing training on foundations of instructional design principles to Pearson Canada Inc. employees.
  • Free multi-media e-learning modules to help Canadians boost their financial knowledge and plan for their future financial security for the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (see: http://www.fcac-acfc.gc.ca/Eng/resources/educationalPrograms/financialBasics/Pages/elearning-apprligne.aspx)
  • A project for the Bombay Stock Exchange to design a train-the-trainer program for effective delivery of a hybrid curriculum on intercultural communication skills for the workplace.
  • A partnership with the University of the West Indies provided students in 12 Caribbean countries with access to a high-quality online programming for their Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BScN). 
  • Entrepreneurial mentor training through an online seminar using interactive case studies and role play.

Further information

 More details of the work of the Centre for Digital Education Strategies can be found here: http://ce-online.ryerson.ca/ce/default.aspx?id=3665

More detailed posts on each of the four projects listed above will follow shortly.

Reading between the lines: the ‘intangibles’ in quality online teaching and learning

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Teaching needs empathy, intuition and imagination, as well as technical competence.

Teaching needs empathy, intuition and imagination, as well as technical competence.

Contact North has organised a series of four webinars highlighting the practical advice and guidelines offered in my online, open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. The first webinar took place last week on September 29. It covered the first five chapters in the book, which discuss:

  • the implications of the major changes taking place in education
  • epistemologies that drive approaches to teaching and learning
  • different teaching methods and their appropriateness for developing the knowledge and skills needed in a knowledge-based society.

The aim of the webinar was not to cover the same ground as in the book,  but to provide an opportunity for participants to raise questions or comments about these issues, which was what they did. I received and answered nearly 30 different questions in the one hour. You can access the recording here: https://contactnorth.webex.com/contactnorth/lsr.php?RCID=67ca245af5fa7a21546ba37e10f306ba

In particular, there were questions about the importance of passion in teaching, whether learners today are really different, how to engage passive learners or introverts online, how to get students to take responsibility for learning, how to get students to collaborate online, and lastly whether cognitivism is an epistemology or a learning theory. I did answer all these questions briefly within the webinar.

On listening again to the recording, though, I was struck by the interest or concern of participants for what I would call the intangibles or the more human aspects in teaching and learning, such as the importance of passion in teaching and learning, dealing with learners’ ‘readiness’ or motivation to learn, building relationships between online learners and instructors, and how to encourage/develop interaction, discussion and collaboration between learners.

This brought home to me that for most instructors, teaching is not just a technical activity that can be categorized, systematised and computerised, but is a fundamentally human practice that requires empathy, intuition, and imagination. These are qualities that cannot be automated.

The next webinar, which will cover chapters 6-9 on media and technology selection, will be on November 3, 2015. For more details, click here.


Book review: A History of the Open University

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The image is of Robin Wilson, an OU math lecturer (and incidentally the son of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who helped create the OU). The floral shirt was de rigueur in the early 1970s (I had one myself).

The image is of Robin Wilson, an OU math lecturer (and incidentally the son of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who helped create the OU). The floral shirt was de rigueur in the early 1970s (I had a few myself).

Weinbren, D. (2105) The Open University: A History Manchester: Manchester University Press/The Open University, 274 pp + notes, £18.99, C$31.61, US$22.30 (paperback edition)

Why you should read this book

From the book cover:

This analysis of the Open University’s precedents, personalities, politics and pedagogies contextualises learners’ experiences and illuminates the change in the values of our society, our ideas about learning and our use of a variety of media.

Despite the florid writing in the publisher’s blurb, this is an accurate summary of the importance of this book, which should be read by anyone interested in open learning, distance learning, equality of access to higher education, changing pedagogies, the role of media in teaching and learning, the politics of creating radically new institutions of higher education, how higher education has changed in terms of value and purpose over the last 45 years, and, most important of all, how open learning can truly transform the lives of individuals.

What the book covers

The book is in four parts, which I will briefly summarise.

Part I: Creating a university of the air

This part covers the origins of the university within the socio-political context of Britain in the 1960s and early 1970s. It is a fascinating story in itself, of how a Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and Jennie Lee, his Under-Secretary of State in the Department of Education and Science, drove through their vision of a technocratic university for the masses, how the original vision was modified from a University of the Air to a multi-media university, and how the university survived a change of government which brought Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives to power in the year that the OU opened. This is mandatory reading for policy wonks interested in how to bring about radical change in higher education.

Chapter 1 provides a broad overview of the challenges, developments and successes of the university over its 45 years existence. For those without the time to read the whole book, this chapter provides a useful encapsulation of the main points covered later.

Chapter 2 provides a more detailed account of the creation of the university, covering the political, socio-economic, pedagogical, and media components. It should be noted that many commentators believe that the Open University was ‘the most original innovation in 20th century British higher education’ and a ‘national treasure.’ This chapter helps to explain why.

In this part of the book, Weinbren captures well the social and political conditions, and above all the idealism and philosophies, that underpinned the creation and establishment of the Open University.

Part II: The first two decades

It is one thing to create a new institution; it is quite another to make it work. Indeed, the author notes that other attempts at innovation in higher education, such as the UK Open Polytechnic and the OU e-University, failed dismally after being created.

This part looks in detail at the governance and administrative structures, the role of academics, tutors and counsellors, the pedagogical models, the use of media, and the regional structure.

Weinbren points out that the intention from the start was to develop a degree-granting university with the highest possible academic standards:

Jennie Lee was adamant that the OU should be comparable to other universities in terms of its academic standards, rather than merely representing an educational second chance for the marginalised.

One reason for the OU’s relatively quick acceptance by the rest of the UK higher education sector was the high quality of the course materials which were used extensively by professors (and students) in the other universities. Another reason was the widespread engagement of academics from other universities as tutors or external examiners, who were often initially surprised by the quality of work produced by OU students.

Weinbren addresses particularly well the challenges the OU faced in terms of scale and the need for learner support for students working alone all over the country. (The OU started on day one in 1971 with 25,000 students and has grown since to 150,000 undergraduates and 30,000 postgraduates in 2014, with almost as many taking non-credit courses or modules.)

Weinbren, like the OU itself, struggles with integrating the competing pedagogical philosophies of behaviourist approaches to the design and development of high quality, mass-produced, course materials, and  learner-centred approaches based on face-to-face tutorials and summer schools. Overall, though, he emphasises that the fundamental pedagogical approach of the OU is focused on students developing personal meaning through interaction not only with course materials but also with faculty/tutors and other students, both face-to-face and later online. He describes with clarity how the often changing and complex learner support systems worked.

This chapter also explains why the Conservatives under Mrs. Thatcher continued to support the OU, despite concerns from some Ministers and the national press about ‘Marxist bias’ in its publicly available materials (especially the broadcasts). Thatcher had little time for traditional universities and saw in the OU a chance for reforming and galvanising the higher education system, especially with regard to improved cost-effectiveness.

This chapter also discusses the rapid development and changes in the use of media at the OU, with broadcasting over time playing a less direct role in teaching, greater use of recorded media such as cassettes, and the development of home experiment kits for science and technology courses.

Part III: The OU since the 1990s

This part is much influenced by the many changes since 1990 in the overall higher education system in Britain, and the consequent attempts by the OU at adaptation and accommodation to such changes. The key change has been the shift from direct government funding for teaching and learning to funding largely through student fees supported by loans (the OU now relies almost entirely on student fees), and the attempt by governments (both Labour and Conservative) to introduce more competition between universities and a more ‘market-oriented’ approach. This has resulted in the OU being treated as just any other university by government, rather than the special and separate treatment it received in earlier years.

Also over the past 45 years, the whole HE sector in the UK has expanded rapidly, making access at least theoretically more open to a much higher proportion of the population. Another important development has been the increased use of online learning by conventional universities. Together these have eroded some of the unique differences and advantages of the OU over the rest of the system.

The OU has responded to these changes in a number of ways, including:

  • expanding its international reach, especially but not exclusively in the rest of Europe;
  • the development of continuing education courses and modules;
  • more diversification regionally to respond to national political devolution;
  • contracts with non-commercial agencies, such as the National Health Service, as well as commercial organisations
  • leading the charge to quality assurance processes;
  • moving increasingly to online learning, and in the process, reducing dramatically the high-cost summer schools and face-to-face tutorial support; and integrating the role of counsellors with that of tutors;
  • increased use of learner-centred and project-based learning;
  • creation of open educational resources, such as FutureLearn and BBC/OU programs aimed at the general public.

Although Weinbren does a good job of covering the increasingly diverse and wide-ranging activities of the OU in the years from 1990 to the present, the OU’s unique role and place in the UK HE system becomes inevitably more fuzzy and its future direction less clear. However, the same criticism could apply to the whole of the UK HE sector, which seems to be increasingly forced back to a highly selective and tiered system, by government policies based on a more commercialised and employer-focused view of higher education. The OU’s place in such a system is by no means clear.

Part IV: Half a century of learning

This is a truly wonderful chapter about the student experience at the OU and lets students speak in their own words. This chapter helps explain why the OU is such an iconic component of British culture, and why it is so loved by students and staff alike (it consistently comes out top in student satisfaction in annual surveys of British universities). More importantly, this chapter clearly demonstrates how the OU has changed millions of students lives for the better.

Weinbren looks at several aspects of the student experience. While the OU has a very broad mix of incomes and occupations, it has opened up higher education particularly to working class families, students with disabilities, prisoners, those without high school qualifications, and above all to women. In this sense it is a truly open university, offering not just opportunities but also qualifications and realistic chances of success for everyone.

Weinbren illustrates how important the OU has been to women, particularly in the early year of the OUs, in terms of personal development and increased self-esteem. The importance of summer schools for engaging students and making them feel part of a university community is particularly well described. I also read with great interest how the OU enabled both Republican and Loyalist prisoners in Northern Ireland ‘to develop political confidence and an understanding of methods other than violence’, some going on to become politicians following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Above all, this chapter provides an excellent antidote to the current market-oriented and functional philosophy of higher education now so prevalent in Britain and elsewhere. If you can read only one chapter, this is the one.

Personal reflections on the book

The OU was a very important part of my life for 20 years. I was one of the first staff appointed in 1969, and I ended up doing at one time or another research and evaluation into the educational effectiveness of different media (including the BBC television and radio programs), designing and writing course units, marking student assignments, directing summer schools, and attending endless meetings about policies, directions and the use of media. I left the OU in 1989, partly because I was frustrated that it wasn’t changing fast enough, particularly with regard to the use of online learning. It’s hard for me then to be objective in reviewing Weinbren’s book and even more so in assessing the contribution of the OU to higher education.

Nevertheless, the book captures wonderfully my lived experience of the OU, especially the student response. Weibren has blended together an impeccable range of resources, anecdotes, events and above all personal contributions from academics, staff and students at the OU into a well-written, captivating chronicle that reflects the spirit as well as the history of the OU.

There are criticisms, of course. At times, it becomes a hagiography of an institution (if that’s possible). Weinbren does describe the many criticisms of the OU, but always provides a contradictory positive contribution to offset each criticism. In particular, he could have been harsher about the OU’s increased bureaucracy and sclerosis as it has become older. True, there have been many innovations, for instance, in the use of technology, but changing its cumbersome and now outdated course development system has proved to be extremely difficult. Although it was one of the first institutions to adopt online learning, it has been a real struggle to make it a central rather than a peripheral part of the teaching system.

More importantly, Weinbren does not look into the future, yet there are surely lessons for the future from his book. The OU is facing an almost existential crisis, with many competitors, a very difficult financial situation, and massive changes and innovation going on elsewhere in the UK higher education system. What is the role of the OU in the 21st century? In what ways can it continue to provide a unique and valuable contribution? What teaching model will best meet the needs of its students in the 21st century? This is probably another book altogether, but Weinbren is particularly well placed to ask and address these issues. As I say to Ph.D. students, the conclusion is your chance to let rip and say what you really think now you have established your credentials. It’s a pity that Weinbren did not take this opportunity, but he has probably other means to let his views be known.

These though are minor caveats. Weinbren has undertaken an extremely challenging task and met the challenge superbly. I hope you will enjoy the book as much as I have. More importantly, there are very important lessons to be drawn from this book about the nature of university education, equity, and government policy toward higher education.

Who are your online students?

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Clinefelter, D. L., & Aslanian, C. B. (2015). Online college students 2015: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences. Louisville, KY: The Learning House, Inc.

The survey

This is an interesting report based on a survey of 1,500 individuals nationwide (USA) who were:

  • at least 18 years of age;
  • had a minimum of a high school degree or equivalent;
  • and were recently enrolled, currently enrolled or planning to enroll in the next 12 months in either a fully online undergraduate or graduate degree program or a fully online certificate or licensure program.

Main findings

This is a very brief summary of a 53 page report packed with data, which I strongly recommend reading in full, especially if you are involved with marketing or planning online programs or courses, but here is a brief tasting menu:

1. Competition for online students is increasing

Data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (2015) show that college enrollments [in the USA] declined by close to 2%, yielding 18.6 million college students today. About 5.5 million of these students are studying partially or fully online. At the same time, competition for these online students is increasing. Between 2012 and 2013, 421 institutions launched online programs for the first time, an increase of 23% to 2,250 institutions.

2. The main motivation for online students is to improve their work prospects

Roughly 75% of online students seek further education to change careers, get a job, earn a promotion or keep up to date with their skills…..Colleges that want to excel in attracting prospective online students must prepare them for and connect them to the world of work.

3. As competition for students stiffens, online students expect policies and processes tailored to their needs

For example, the amount of transfer credit accepted has consistently been ranked one of the top 10 factors in selecting an institution.

4. In online education, everything is local

Half of online students live within 50 miles of their campus, and 65% live within 100 miles….It is critical that institutions have a strong local brand so that they are at the top of students’ minds when they begin to search for a program of study.

5. Affordability is a critical variable

Forty-five percent of respondents to the 2015 survey reported that they selected the most inexpensive institution. … Thus, it is not surprising that among 23 potential marketing messages, the most appealing were “Affordable tuition” and “Free textbooks.”

6. We could do better

21% reported “Inconsistent/poor contact and communication with instructors,” and 17% reported “Inconsistent/poor quality of instruction. ” More contact with regular faculty was requested, especially as advisors.

7. Blended learning is an option – for some

About half of the respondents indicated they would attend a hybrid or low-residency option if their program was not available fully online. But 30% said they would not attend if their program was not available online.

8. The program or major drives the selection process.

60% indicated they selected their program of study first and then considered institutions.

9. Online students are diverse

Online students have a wide range of needs and backgrounds. Even the age factor is changing, with more and more students under 25 years of age choosing to study online for their undergraduate degrees.

10. Cost matters

Undergraduates reported paying $345 per credit, and graduate students reported paying $615 per credit, on average (equivalent to around $25,000 for a full degree). Applicants need clear and easily accessible information about the costs of studying online and the financial aid rules regarding online students.

As I said, this is just a taste of an information-packed report, which is useful not only to those marketing programs to students, but also for convincing faculty of the importance of online learning.

But remember: this is a study of online students in the USA. There may be problems in generalising too much to other jurisdictions.