August 20, 2014

Productivity and online learning redux

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If only it was this simple: Image© Course Gateway, 2013

If only it was this simple: Image© Course Gateway, 2013

Summarizing the previous posts

In previous posts (see end of this post), I tried to identify a range of areas where online learning might enable productivity gains. In this post I will bring them together and state what I believe are the areas that offer the potential for the greatest gains, given current knowledge. At this stage my conclusions are very subjective but I hope they will provide a framework for further studies and for better and more systematic data collection.

Access

There are fairly strong arguments (but little hard data) to suggest that online learning can help governments boost participation rates more effectively than by building more campuses and funding more campus-based education. Productivity is increased by eventually getting more graduates than would otherwise have been possible without online learning and the flexibility it allows.

The reasons to support this argument are as follows:

  • Particularly in jurisdictions where there is already a high participation rate, increasing that rate further means reaching out to groups that have to date been largely excluded from post-secondary education. Since existing data indicates that online learning appeals particularly to lifelong learners, working adults and older learners, online learning is more likely to appeal to this target group. To date though there has been little attempt to measure the impact of reaching otherwise excluded groups through online learning. More hard data is needed to support this argument.
  • there is some evidence to suggest that online learning has lower overhead costs than campus-based education. If this is correct, it may be more productive to expand online learning rather than build new campuses when attempting to increase participation rates. Again though there are few studies that provide hard data to show that overhead costs are indeed lower for online learning.
  • it has been argued that hybrid and online learning provides existing students with more flexibility, allowing them to combine work with part-time study, thus allowing them either to complete studies they could not afford without part-time work, or to complete more quickly than they would without the flexibility that online learning provides. Of course the argument could work in reverse. By providing more flexibility, students may take longer to graduate. Once again, it should be possible to test either argument empirically, but again there are few if any studies that have looked at this.

Thus online learning offers the promise of increasing productivity through increasing participation and speed to graduation  at less cost, but there are few studies to date to either support or refute these claims. It should be noted though that in most cases, the data to test these arguments is within institutional databases; it has just not been extracted and analyzed for this purpose.

Wilfred Laurier University is proposing a campus in Milton Ontario - but would it be more productive to use online learning?

Wilfred Laurier University is proposing a campus in Milton Ontario – but would it be more productive to use online learning?

Free or massively scalable content

Nowhere in online learning is there such potential for increases in educational productivity as in content development and delivery. Once learning materials are created, they can be stored, accessed, delivered and used by an unlimited number of learners, thus potentially achieving large economies of scale and thereby reducing costs per learner (see graph at beginning of this post).

Another important factor contributing to economies of scale in online learning is the increasing availability of open educational resources. Particularly in foundational courses and many ‘standard’ undergraduate courses, ‘open’ material is already available and does not have to be re-created. The main cost is selecting and organizing existing open source materials, but this is likely to be less time-consuming for faculty than creating materials from scratch. Open online textbooks can have a direct and immediate impact on reducing student costs.

Nevertheless there are many impediments to achieving productivity gains through free or massively scalable content:

  • faculty often see themselves as  creating unique and original material in their teaching; this is true occasionally and needs to be respected, especially where faculty are teaching about their own and related research. Often though faculty are merely repackaging prior knowledge. That prior knowledge is increasingly being made available and open for anyone to use.
  • the shelf life of much academic material is increasingly short; thus content needs to be constantly maintained and updated
  • there may not be a massive market for many specialist online courses thus preventing economies of scale from being achieved. However, there are many ways to increase market reach with online learning, including going global, collaborating and sharing materials, courses and programs with partner institutions in the same or other jurisdictions, repackaging content for different markets (e.g. for casual learners, certificates, or degrees). Such strategies though will also require reviewing and often changing admission policies, intellectual property agreements and other practices that restrict access to ‘institutional’ content.
  • the quality of open educational resources developed by faculty working alone, without applying best course design practices, is often very low and such ‘open’ resources are often not considered suitable for re-use
  • content development and delivery is a relatively small proportion of the cost of credit-based online learning (from 15-20%); the main costs are in learner support.

Despite these impediments, in certain circumstances (i.e. where there is a large market and best practices are applied to content design), online content development and delivery is already resulting in increased productivity in post-secondary education, although it has yet to be well measured.

Course design based on sound pedagogical principles

One important reason for the success of many for-credit online courses and programs has been the introduction of best practices in course design, drawing on cognitive science research, best teaching practices, and prior experience of teaching students at a distance. These practices include situated learning, drawing on learners’ own work and life experiences, student time-management support, collaborative learning, student activities resulting in greater time on task, and regular and constructive feedback to students through continuous assessment.

In particular a focus in online courses on ’21st century skills’ development, such as knowledge management and independent learning, would have two benefits. It would improve outputs (turning out graduates with the skills needed). Second, content development and delivery becomes subsidiary to helping students find, analyze, organize and apply content themselves. Thus less time would be spent by instructors on course development and delivery.

Such practices of course could be be used in classroom teaching, but good online course design templates are more easily scaled and reproduced, and the technology lends itself to such approaches to learning. Productivity is improved through application of such quality course design because more students achieve higher levels of learning and more students complete courses and programs. Thus although it is not the technology itself that results in better outcomes, the technology facilitates the change to more effective teaching methods.

Once again though, while teachers and students who have been engaged in such new designs often claim better outcomes, there is still a lack of convincing empirical research to support these beliefs. Nevertheless, a focus on better design replicated on a large scale through online learning should have a major impact on improving productivity.

Learner support

What little research that has been done on costs of credit-based online learning indicates that course delivery (which includes both learner support and student assessment) accounted for the largest overall cost of an online program (37%), almost three times more than course development, over the life of an online program (Bates and Sangra, 2011).

Instructional MOOCs (xMOOCs) have basically removed learner support, at least in terms of human (instructor) support, but this has resulted in a very low number of MOOC learners passing end-of-course assessments of learning. Indeed, prior research into credit-based learning has established that instructor online ‘presence’ is a critical factor in retaining students. So far, it has proved difficult to scale up learner support on a massive scale, except through the use of computer technology, such as automated feedback. However, Carey and Trick (2013) and indeed faculty at elite institutions who are offering xMOOCs (see Thrun and ‘the Magic of the Campus‘) have argued that such computer support does not support ‘the learning that matters most’.

Although computer-based feedback and adaptive learning facilitate comprehension and technical mastery outcomes, computer-based approaches to learner support to date has been inadequate for formal assessment of higher order learning skills such as original, critical or strategic thinking, evaluation of strategies or alternative explanations. To assess such forms of learning, deep expertise and qualitative assessment is required, and to date not only human instructors, but instructors with a deep subject understanding and high levels of expertise, are needed to both develop and assess such high level skills. Given the long history of trying to apply artificial intelligence to instruction, immediate and major breakthroughs seem unlikely, at least in the short term.

A l'école, Jean Marc Cote, 1901.

A l’école, Jean Marc Cote, 1901.

However, there are other ways in which the productivity of learner support might be improved. In cMOOCs that are more like communities of practice and thus contain many participants with already high levels of expertise, that expertise and judgement can be provided by the participants themselves. (The issue then is how do people get to such high levels of expertise in the first place – we need more research/experience with cMOOCs to know whether they are also good for learners with initially low levels of knowledge in a particular subject domain. Some combination of expert/instructors plus a community of practice approach might be necessary for such learners, but might still operate successfully with much higher instructor:learner ratios than in conventional, credit-based learning.)

Also, credit-based online learning has achieved some economies of scale and scope by re-organizing the learner support process, through the hire and training in online learner support of lower-paid contact adjuncts who still have high level academic qualifications, under the supervision of a senior faculty member. In other words, team teaching approaches, with the senior academic working more as a teaching consultant, setting curriculum, designing assessments and creating rubrics, and supervising the learner support provided by a team of adjuncts, can help not only reduce costs but also achieve modest economies of scale in learner support, especially when combined with best practices in course design.

Innovation vs standardization

In industry, innovation is often another way of saying ‘investment in technology’. However, there is more to innovation than just replacing a human activity with a computer-based activity. What the technology usually brings about is a change in process at the same time.

Thus there is a natural tension between ‘best practice’, based on experience of doing things in an ‘old’ way, and innovation, which means doing something differently. Indeed Christensen (2008) distinguished between ‘sustaining’ innovation, which builds and improves on best practices, and ‘disruptive’ innovation, where a new technology results in sweeping away old ways of doing something. Real, sustainable innovation occurs then when new technology is combined with new processes.

In education, perhaps the main ‘process’ that we need to examine is the instructional model, particularly that based around the lecture system. I am not arguing that lectures no longer have a purpose. However, the teaching model based on three lectures a week over 13 weeks used primarily to deliver information to students is now redundant, given that information is ubiquitous and if not free, increasingly available at low cost over the Internet. Thus knowledge management becomes more important than mere access to knowledge. If we look at xMOOCs though we have taken a new technology – video lecture capture and Internet transmission – and applied it to an outdated model of teaching. True innovation requires a change of process or method as well as a change of technology.

Earlier though I argued that we need to apply best practices in course design to the use of technology. By definition, best practices are based on tried and true methods. However, in post-secondary education, these ‘best practices’ are not the prevailing teaching method on most campuses (except perhaps the very elite, where they can be applied on a face-to-face basis to small classes.). As public post-secondary education has become massified, the lecture has become the default model, because in a classroom based system, it has proved the only way to ‘scale up.’ Online learning offers an opportunity to break out of this redundant and increasingly less productive lecture model of teaching, as it does not develop the skills needed in the 21st century.

There are then really two routes to innovation. The least risky is the sustainable development approach, finding ways to incorporate and more importantly adapt ‘best practices’ on a massive scale through online learning. This will mean increasing productivity in relatively small steps. The advantage of this approach is that it is more likely to preserve and protect the core values of ‘higher’ education. The other route is ‘disruptive’ innovation – jumping into an entirely different way of doing something based around a new or emerging technology. This is more likely to bring much greater productivity gains, but the risks are much higher. It could well result in throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

In reality, institutions, and individuals within those institutions, cannot control disruptive innovation – it comes from outside. However, institutions can control sustainable innovation. Indeed if they do not they are much more vulnerable to disruptive innovation. Thus it is important to find new best practices that are easily scalable, while meeting the needs of 21st century learners at high quality. This is probably the most sensible way to bring about radically better productivity. But it’s not going to be easy.

Conclusions

So here are my personal views on online learning and productivity, based on this analysis.

1. Government and institutional leaders need to set improved productivity as a key goal for investment in learning technologies. This means setting benchmarks and implementing means of measuring success or otherwise in improving productivity through learning technologies/online learning. Data analytics now make this measurement more feasible than in the past, but it also requires models or a theoretical framework for assessing what constitutes productivity in a post-secondary educational setting.

2. Understanding the basic cost structures of online learning, compared to the costs of classroom teaching, is an essential first step to increasing productivity in post-secondary education. It is risky to assume that online learning is always more cost-effective or productive; the circumstances need to be right.

3.Content is only one component of teaching (and an increasingly less important component); other components such as learner support and assessment are even more important. Care is needed then because changes in methods of online content development and delivery could have negative knock-on cost and productivity consequences in other areas of course delivery, such as learner support and assessment. In looking at productivity issues, all these factors need to be examined together.

4. Any attempts at scaling or increasing economies of scope in content development and delivery need to be balanced by ensuring quality does not suffer. However, online course development has the potential, through good course design, to improve quality rather than reduce it.

5. The ‘learning that matters most’ mainly addresses university teaching, but also increasingly technical, vocational and corporate training; the aim is to develop the knowledge and skills needed in a knowledge-based society. Online learning can handle the ‘learning that matters most’ as well, in most cases, as on-campus teaching, although there will always be some exceptions.

6. However, there are major difficulties in scaling up the learner support and assessment activities that are needed for the learning that matters most, both online or on campus. The danger in scaling up is the loss of quality in terms of learning outcomes.

7. Adaptive learning software that helps individualize learning, and learning analytics, may help to a small degree in enabling instructors to handle slightly more students without loss of quality, but cannot as yet replace a skilled instructor, and probably never will. Higher education requires expertise and qualitative assessment for the learning that matters most, and that will need human instructors.

8. New online course designs built around the use of new technologies have greater potential for increases in productivity – through producing better learning outcomes – for the learning that matters most, than through scaling up, i.e. by increasing teacher:student ratios.

9. We need more empirical research on the relationship between teaching methods, mode of delivery, costs, and the type of learning outcomes that constitute the ‘learning that matters most’ (not to mention better definitions).

Now it’s your turn

As I’ve said, this has been a struggle for me to work through the issues of online learning and productivity. The whole purpose of this arduous exercise is to promote debate and discussion about productivity and online learning. So I’d really welcome your comments. It would be great to hear from people with experience in productivity in other areas besides education, and to hear from those in education about the potential or dangers of applying the thinking around productivity to online learning.

So go for it!

Other posts in the series

© Ann Helmond 2009

© Ann Helmond 2009

Leadership in open and distance education universities

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Tram in Lisbon

Tram in Lisbon

 The conference

For 20 years, the Standing Committee of Presidents (SCOP) of the members of the International Council of Distance Education (ICDE) has provided a unique forum for rectors, presidents and senior policy makers in open and distance education to exchange views and experiences and to discuss the latest developments and trends.

This year’s conference (like the first) was organized by Universidade Aberta do Portugal (UAb) in Lisbon, Portugal. Since the inaugural SCOP meeting in 1993, the world of open and distance education has undergone dramatic changes. The number of players in ODL has increased exponentially as  online learning has become mainstream practice in higher education. In the last decade, also, new electronic forms of open educational practice have developed, creating a set of new challenges and opportunities for university top leadership in open and distance education institutions.

The 2013 SCOP meeting therefore focused on change and how leadership has a pivotal role in promoting it. It was also partly a celebration because 2013 is a special anniversary year for the Open University of Portugal, since UAb was also celebrating its own 25 year anniversary. Lastly I have a special connection to UAb, as I received an honorary degree (doctor honoris causa) from UAb in 1995 for my research in distance education teaching.

The European Commission’s strategy for open education

The conference opened with the obligatory speaker from the European Commission, but this time the speaker, Pierre Mairesse, the director responsible in the European Commission for issues related to the European strategy for education and lifelong learning, was both well informed about open and distance education, and very informative about the European Commission’s strategies towards open and online learning.

He talked particularly about the EC’s Opening Up Education initiative, details of which can be found at the Open Education Europa web site. The aim of the initiative is to bring the digital revolution to education with a range of actions in three areas: open learning environments, open educational resources, and connectivity and innovation. The Open Education Europa portal provides convenient access to a wide range of resources, events and papers about open and online education in Europe. As the press release in September stated:

More than 60% of nine year olds in the EU are in schools which are still not digitally equipped. The European Commission’s … action plan [aims to] to tackle this and other digital problems which are hampering schools and universities from delivering high quality education and the digital skills which 90% of jobs will require by 2020. 

For instance, on the Open Education Europa web site you can access OER4Adults, an overview and analysis of practices with Open Educational Resources in adult education in Europe. This has such important implications for the utilization of OERs that I will do a separate post in a few days time on this topic.

Another interesting page on the Open Education Europa web site is the MOOC European scorecard (see below – date loaded: 2 December 2013):

MOOCs Europe 2013

This means that roughly one third of MOOCs are now European, and even more surprisingly, over one third of the European MOOCs are Spanish (probably due to the potential markets in Latin America).

The rationale and the actions proposed by the European Commission through its Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 programs can be found in the following document: Opening up Education: Innovative teaching and learning for all through new Technologies and Open Educational Resources 

Leadership for change in a time of openness

I was the second keynote speaker and I focused on what has changed in 20 years and how institutional leadership has evolved in the world of open and distance learning. Now I need to point out that I have never been a university president, nor am I likely to be one, and there are very good reasons for that, but I have been a close observer and researcher into leadership in open and distance learning.

My key points were as follows:

the key drivers of change in post-secondary education have changed:

  • there is in fact increased access now in many OECD countries, with participation rates in several countries exceeding 50% of a cohort going on to some form of post-secondary educational experience. The issue now in some countries is more about cost than access. The massification of conventional higher education also raises questions about quality.Thus access is no longer a unique selling point for open institutions, although access still remains a critical issue for many developing countries and for marginalized groups in more developed countries. 
  • for economic development reasons there has been a shift of focus towards developing high level skills geared towards the needs of knowledge workers, including digital literacy (in its broadest sense); the mainly ‘broadcast’ pedagogical models adopted by large open universities therefore also need to change for these skills to be developed

increased competition in the ‘open’ and ‘distance’ spaces

  • many conventional universities have moved into online learning, a trend that has rapidly increased with the development of MOOCs; open educational resources also provide another form of open-ness, so ‘open’ or ‘distance’ or ‘online’ are now no longer unique defining features for ODL institutions

leadership for change means challenging prevailing institutional cultures

  • this is as true – if not more true – for established open and distance learning institutions as it is for conventional universities. A particular challenge is to develop nimble and quick models of quality course design that can be applied on a massive scale, and moving away from old technologies such as print and broadcasting while still managing very large numbers of students
  • to implement change successfully, leadership needs to
    • set clear and measurable goals for the institution that differentiate it from other providers
    • involve faculty, instructional designers and media designers in developing new course designs built around new web 2.0 technologies
    • devolve decision-making about technologies to those in the front line (faculty and students), but ensuring they are properly prepared for such decision-making through pedagogical training
    • develop activity-based business models that track the true costs of changing course design and delivery models

one vision for teaching in the future

To conclude, I offered a few pointers to what unique contributions open and distance learning institutions could bring to the higher education market place. In particular:

  • an emphasis on pedagogies built around 21st century digital technologies,
  • open admission policies,
  • reduced cost per student through economies of scale and scope, and
  • quality online learner support

will still provide unique competitive advantages for open and distance learning organizations.

If you want a copy of my slides, please send an e-mail to: tony.bates@ubc.ca

A case-study of institutional change: Universidade Aberta, Portugal

António Moreira Texeira, of the Open University of Portugal, described how between 2006-2009 UAb moved all its courses from print-based to online, resulting in a 40% increase in enrollments and the addition of many new students from Brazil. This change process included introducing a new pedagogical model based on collaborative and interactive learning, and the training of all its instructors/faculty in online teaching.

I was involved in a minor way in helping the university set up its Masters in e-Learning Pedagogy (MPEL – Mestrado em Pedagogia do Elearning), and I had a wonderful 90 minutes after the conference with about 30 students and staff from the program who were attending a one-day workshop. They asked some great questions. The program is in Portuguese: to enrol click here

Talking with MPED students

Talking with MPEL students and staff after the session

The African Virtual University

Bakary Diallo, the Rector of the African Virtual University, gave a very interesting presentation on the development of the African Virtual University, which to date is a meta-organization providing online and distance education services to many existing universities across Africa.

The AVU has more than 50 academic partner institutions in more than 27 countries in Africa. It helps partner institutions set up local study centres in different countries, where programs from numerous partner institutions, learner support and guidance, and access to e-learning technologies are made available. To date there are 10 such centres, in 10 different countries.

The main focus at the moment is on teacher education, with four bachelor programs for teachers of math, physics, chemistry and biology, offered through a consortium of 12 universities in 10 African countries. Delivery is mixed mode, through online learning and attendance at local centres.

AVU though also offers or facilitates a wide range of webinars, self-learning programs, workshops, and certificate/diploma programs, in collaboration with the partner institutions. AVU also offers student scholarships.

Leadership and policy forums

The rest of the conference was given over to participative forums/workshops/buzz groups that discussed ICDE research projects, various innovative projects from member institutions, government relations, co-operation and collaboration with and between other similar organizations, such as EDEN, OECD, UNESCO, SEAMO, EADTU, EFQUEL, Sloan, and the African Council for Distance Education

Conclusion

Not being a university president, this was the first time I had attended a SCOP ICDE conference. I was impressed at how pragmatic and focused the discussions were. The conference also provided a unique opportunity for networking at a leadership level.

Nevertheless, the ICDE membership faces some significant challenges. This is nothing new. For many years, its members have struggled for academic recognition (and in some countries still do, such as Nigeria). However, over time open, distance and online learning have become more accepted and MOOCs have propelled this acceptance even further.

At the same time, the ICDE institutions now have major challenges from conventional and Ivy League universities, particularly for the open and online space. However, open and distance learning institutions still have much to offer, particularly in terms of cost-effectiveness, flexibility and quality. What they lack at the moment is a clear communications strategy that focuses on their unique contributions, and ensures that this message gets across, particularly at the political and governmental level. This conference will have helped moved that agenda forward.

Lastly, Lisbon is one of my very favourite cities: beautiful, unique, with very friendly people, and wonderful wine and food, especially if you like fish. Worth the jet-lag any day.

A view of Lisbon from the Alfama area

A view of Lisbon from the Alfama area

 

 

Improving productivity in online learning: can we scale ‘the learning that matters most’?

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Can 'the magic of the campus' be replicated online - and at scale?

Can ‘the magic of the campus’ be replicated online – and at scale?

The story so far

This is a continuation of the discussion on whether online learning can increase educational ‘productivity.’ Previous posts in this series include:

There is a CIDER webinar presentation on the HEQCO report available from here

In the last post, I concluded:

  • there are major economies of scale in using computer-based feedback for facilitating comprehension and technical mastery outcomes
  • computer-based feedback, when well designed, can also be useful in providing student feedback for more complex forms of learning, such as alternative strategies, critical thinking and evaluation
  • however computer-based analyses to date are inadequate for formal assessment of these higher order learning skills, where deep expertise and qualitative assessment is required, and where learners may provide new insights or alternative explanations
  • redesign of courses with a greater focus on student discovery (finding, analyzing and applying content) within a learning design offers more modest but still significant potential for increases in productivity, mainly through better learning outcomes (development of 21st century skills) and through more effective use of senior research professors’ time.

Learner-instructor interaction and economies of scale

In this current post, I examine particularly the learner-instructor interaction, and discuss whether online learning can provide economies of scale in this area. This is particularly important, because research on credit-based online learning has shown that course delivery (which includes both learner support and student assessment) accounted for the largest overall cost of an online program (37%), almost three times more than course development, over the life of an online program (Bates and Sangra, 2011).

Can we scale ‘the learning that matters most’?

This important question has been raised in the HEQCO report by Tom Carey and David Trick. It is this issue I wish to address here, since scaling up the delivery of content, and learner-content interaction, through online learning is relatively easy, although both depend on good course design for effective learning.

What is more challenging is whether we can also scale the kind of ‘learning that matters most’, namely helping students when they struggle with new concepts or ideas, helping students to gain deep understanding of a topic or subject, helping students to evaluate a range of different ideas or practices, providing students with professional formation or development, understanding the limits of knowledge, and above all enabling students to find, evaluate and apply knowledge appropriately in new or ill-defined contexts.

Before looking at whether or not such activities can be scaled, it is important to challenge the view, such as Sanjay Sharma’s at MIT, that such forms of learning can only be achieved on campus. There is also more than a hint of this assumption in the HEQCO report, at least with respect to undergraduate education. Those of us who have taught online will know that it is possible to develop these kinds of learning outcomes online, especially but not exclusively at graduate level. Strategies such as scaffolding or supporting knowledge construction through online discussion and dialogue, student reflection through e-portfolios, and above all personal online interventions and communication between students and instructor, have all been found to lead to learning outcomes at least as equivalent to those of students studying the same subjects on-campus (see references below).

There will remain a relatively few learning activities that matter most that are best done on campus, such as the development of hands-on skills, but there will be others, such as knowledge management, that may well be best done online. More importantly, there will be some students who really need the environment provided by a campus, and others that will prefer an online environment.

The issue is not can the learning that matters most be done online, but can it be scaled up through online learning? Certainly, I would argue that the main criticism of xMOOCs is that they spectacularly fail to address this form of learning. However, cMOOCs, when they operate at the level of communities of practice with relatively shared levels of understanding and knowledge among the participants, do have at least the potential for such economies of scale while maintaining or even improving quality of learning outcomes. The challenge though is how one accounts for the hidden costs of the participation of experts in such professional sharing, which rely heavily on volunteering or ‘moonlighting’ from a paid job by those with the expertise. I suspect though that even if these costs were calculated, they would still prove more ‘productive’ than conventional campus-based classes for this type of learner. However, the cost-effectiveness research has yet to be done.

The challenge though is scaling up the kinds of interaction between students and instructors that enable diagnosis of a student’s learning difficulties, that facilitate deep understanding of a subject, that encourage creative and original thinking, especially within undergraduate education. Adaptive learning and learning analytics may help to some extent, but in my view cannot yet come close to matching the skill of an experienced and skilled instructor. If instructors are to have enough time to engage in these kinds of dialogue and communication with students, there is clearly a limit on the number of students they can handle. Thus there is a possibility of small increases in productivity, aided by developments such as adaptive learning and learning analytics, but not major ones, in this aspect of teaching and learning.

Scaling the assessment of ‘learning that matters most.’

When ‘the magic of the campus’ is raised, one of the implicit assumptions is that student assessment is more valid because of the personal knowledge that faculty develop of a student in their entirety, and not just in their formal academic work: how they conduct themselves in class discussion (not just what they say, but how they say it), their interests and knowledge outside the formal curriculum (e.g. do they read widely or participate in valued extra-curricula activities), and the impression students make in social activities with faculty. This ‘tacit’ knowledge of a particular student that faculty acquire on campus can heavily influence the final assessment of a student, beyond that of the final exam. As they say at Oxford University, ‘Is he one of us?’

I was fortunate to have done my undergraduate degree in a department where every ‘honours’ student was well known by every faculty member. We were told that in the final exam, we could not get a worse grade than was already determined, but we could improve on it by a really good performance. In other words, the final exam was more of a rite of passage – the assessment was already more or less in place. This was only possible because of the ‘deep’ knowledge that faculty had already gained of the students. The fear that many faculty have of of online learning is that this kind of knowledge of a student is impossible ‘at a distance.’

Again, however, at least some elements of this ‘getting to know students’ can be achieved online, through continuous assessment, the use of e-portfolios and participation in online discussions. Again, the similarities between online learning and campus teaching are often greater than the differences. The problem is scaling up this kind of in-depth academic relationship between student and instructor, both for classroom and online teaching. Although the actual ratio may be difficult to specify, it is clear that this kind of relationship cannot be built up if the instructor:student ratio is in the thousands.

The fact is though that undergraduate students in most public universities are not in the fortunate position that I was. Even in their final year, many find themselves are in classes of over 100 students. They will probably be better off in an online class of 30 students, and even in an online class of 100, they may have more personal interaction with the instructor than in a lecture theatre, if the course is well designed. However, scaling up much beyond this ratio is not going to enable the more personal intellectual relationship to develop that allows for the more informal ‘I know what this student is capable of’ relationship, either online or on campus.

In short, for assessment based on deep knowledge of a student’s progress and capabilities, the scope for economies of scale are limited. In this sense, teacher:student ratios do matter, so economies of scale through online learning will be difficult to achieve for these higher order learning skills.

Conclusions

This has been a particularly difficult blog to write which suggests I may still not be thinking clearly about this topic, so please help me out! However, here is where I stand on this issue so far:

1. The ‘learning that matters most’ mainly addresses university teaching, but I suspect also increasingly technical, vocational and corporate training; the aim is to develop the knowledge and skills needed in a knowledge-based society.

2. Online learning can handle the ‘learning that matters most’ as well, in most cases, as on-campus teaching, although there will always be some exceptions.

3. However, there are major difficulties in scaling up the learner support and assessment activities that are needed for the learning that matters most, both online or on campus. The danger in scaling up is the loss of quality in terms of learning outcomes.

4. Adaptive learning software that helps individualize learning, and learning analytics, may help to a small degree in enabling instructors to handle slightly more students without loss of quality, but cannot as yet replace a skilled instructor, and probably never will.

5. New online course designs built around the use of new technologies have greater potential for increases in productivity – through producing better learning outcomes – for the learning that matters most, than through scaling up, i.e. by increasing teacher:student ratios.

6. We need more empirical research on the relationship between teaching methods, mode of delivery, costs, and the type of learning outcomes that constitute the ‘learning that matters most’ (not to mention better definitions).

Your input

First I’d really welcome responses to this post. In particular:

  • Is ‘the learning that matters most’ a useful concept for university teaching? Do you agree with my descriptions of it?
  • Have I missed something obvious in the possibility for scaling these learner support and assessment activities?
  • Can adaptive learning software and learning analytics take some or all of the load off instructors in developing such learning outcomes?
  • What would new online course designs that increase productivity look like? Do you have actual examples that have been implemented?

Next

In my next post on this topic, I will discuss an area where I think there is huge potential for increasing productivity through online learning, and that is through savings in physical overheads.

References

Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, R., & Archer, W. (2001). Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Vol. 5, No.2.

Baker, C. (2010) The Impact of Instructor Immediacy and Presence for Online Student Affective Learning, Cognition, and Motivation The Journal of Educators Online Vol. 7, No. 1

Bates, A. and Sangrà, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley and Son

Garrison, D. R. & Cleveland-Innes, M. (2005). Facilitating cognitive presence in online learning: Interaction is not enough. American Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 19, No. 3

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

Jonassen, D., Davidson, M., Collins, M., Campbell, J. and Haag, B. (1995) ‘Constructivism and Computer-mediated Communication in Distance Education’, American Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp 7-26.

Paloff, R. and Pratt, K. (2007) Building Online Learning Communities San Francisco: John Wiley and Co.

Richardson, J. C., & Swan, K. (2003). Examining social presence in online courses in relation to students’ perceived learning and satisfaction. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 7 (1), 68-8 8.

Salmon, G. (2000) E-moderating London/New York: Routledge

Sheridan, K. and Kelly, M.  (2010) The Indicators of Instructor Presence that are Important to Students in Online Courses MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Vol. 6, No. 4

 

 

“Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”: a retrospective of my work

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Still alive on Saturday

Still alive on Sunday

Brindley. J. and Paul, R. (2013) Understanding the building blocks of online learning: Through the writings and research of pre-eminent online learning expert, Dr. Tony Bates Sudbury ON: Contact North, October 2

It was Mark Twain who complained in this way about a premature obituary in the New York Journal. While not quite an obituary, the Contact North post is the first in a series of eight that looks at my perspectives and advice on key issues in online learning, based, as each post unkindly points out, on my nearly 50 years of working for change and reform in post-secondary education.  This series was researched and developed by Contact North | Contact Nord Research Associates, Dr. Jane Brindley and Dr. Ross Paul.

This first post discusses my views on the drivers of change in the way we teach and learn, and on the role of online learning.

It also summarizes the posts that are to follow under the heading of the Seven Key Building Blocks of Online Learning:

  • planning for effective teaching with technology
  • how emerging pedagogies map onto the new technologies
  • how faculty can support learner success
  • how faculty can ensure quality in an online learning environment
  • guidelines for faculty from educational technology research
  • costing considerations for hybrid and online courses
  • institutional and faculty roles in strategic planning.

Contact North will be publishing one post every two weeks in this series.

Comment

Although I agreed to this project, and indeed have seen and commented on all the drafts for the series, you can perhaps tell that I am slightly embarrassed by the whole thing. Jane and Ross have done an amazing job pulling together an amorphous set of resources scattered through many blog posts, journal articles and books into a series of coherent posts that are directed clearly at the interests of faculty and instructors. I think the series will be particularly useful for those poor post-graduate students who have been given my books as set readings to wade through, and for instructors dipping their toes into online learning for the first time. I am immensely grateful to and honoured by Contact North for developing and promoting this series.

The main reason for my embarrassment is that most of the stuff in the posts is not my original work. Like everyone in academia, I stand on the shoulders of giants. (Interesting to note that this quotation was used by Isaac Newton in his introduction to Principia Mathematica – and he plagiarized the quote from someone else!) So all I have done in most of my writing is to pull together other people’s research and writings, and I am still concerned that this does not come across strongly enough in the series. You will also not find any critique or criticism of my work in this series, so please use the comment section after each post. Nevertheless, I respect Contact North’s desire for simplicity and clarity.

So I hope you will follow the series and more importantly (since regular readers of this blog are more than likely to be familiar with the material), direct colleagues, instructors new to online learning, and post-graduate students studying online learning, to this series of posts.

In the meantime THIS IS NOT THE END!

What’s next?

I will continue my blog as best I can while travelling, including the series on productivity and online learning (the next will look at the issues around scaling learner-instructor interactions).

I’m also working on a new book called provisionally ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ which is due out next year.

So yes, I’m still alive.

Alternative ways to improve productivity through online learner-content interaction

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A l'école, Jean Marc Cote, 1901.

A l’école, Jean Marc Cote, 1901.

In this post, I attempt to examine what Sanjay Sharma of MIT calls ‘the magic of the campus‘, how at least some of this can be created in an online environment, and in particular whether or not this can or should be scaled to increase productivity.

The story so far

This is a continuation of the exploration of the potential for online learning to increase educational ‘productivity.’ Previous posts in this series include:

In the last post, I disaggregated the activities encompassed in online teaching, as a first step in identifying those that are easily scaled (and hence can lead to reductions in unit costs), and those that are either currently difficult to scale, or indeed should NOT be scaled.

I broke online teaching down into the following activities:

  1. Content development and delivery (the topic of the previous post)
  2. Student activities
  3. Learner support
  4. Assessment
  5. Planning, administration and overheads

I argued in my previous post that content development and delivery offered major economies of scale:

  • online content development and delivery is already resulting in increased productivity in post-secondary education, although it has yet to be well documented and publicised (except for MOOCs)
  • at the same time, there is still room for even greater increases in productivity through online course development and delivery, especially through the use of open educational resources and sharing of content across different institutions
  • online content development and delivery is only one component of online teaching; other components such as learner support and assessment are even more important
  • care is needed then because productivity changes in methods of online content development and delivery could have knock-on cost and productivity consequences in other areas of course delivery, such as learner support and assessment. In looking at productivity issues, all these factors need to be examined together

Supporting student learning

Why learner support is critical for productivity

Before we can start on this topic, it needs to be recognized that students vary enormously in their need for support in learning. Many lifelong learners, who have already been through a post-secondary education, have families, careers and a great deal of life experience, can be self-managed, autonomous learners, identifying what they need to learn and how best to do this. At the other extreme, there are students for whom the k-12 system was a disaster, who lack basic learning skills or foundations, such as reading, writing and mathematical skills, and therefore lack confidence in learning. These will need a lot of support to succeed. At the same time, there will be rare individuals in both categories who are exceptions – some lifelong learners will need a lot of support, and others who have otherwise failed in the formal education system nevertheless will have the confidence and determination to succeed, given a second chance, mainly through their own efforts.

There are also different attitudes from instructors and institutions towards the need for learner support. Some faculty may believe that ‘It’s my job to instruct and yours to learn’ – in other words, once students are presented with the necessary content through lectures or reading, the rest is up to them.

Nevertheless, the reality is that in a system of mass higher education, faculty will have to deal with students with a wide range of needs in terms of learner support, unless we are willing to sacrifice the future of many thousands of learners – which certainly is not productive. Thus a productive educational system will focus particularly on enabling as many students as possible to succeed (which is why of course course completion and graduation rates are so important.)

Different types of learner support

Tom Carey in his reflections on the HEQCO productivity report (of which he was one of the authors), reframed his analysis of emerging developments in online learning using different types of learning interactions:

  • Learner-content interactions can be used effectively to advance quality and productivity for technical mastery outcomes, e.g., performance tasks with single solutions and predictable pathways to completion (allowing adaptive systems to provide task guidance)
  • Learner-learner interactions can be used effectively to advance quality and productivity for (some) of the question-and-answer and formative feedback roles traditionally carried out with learner-instructor interactions, and seem to be essential (at the moment?) for outcomes involving complex challenges with diverse ways of knowing.
  • Learner-instructor interactions appear to be essential for outcomes involving deep personal change related to learning itself:  grappling with threshold concepts, enhancing learning mindsets and strategies, and ‘getting better at getting better’ for knowledge-intensive work
  • Learner-expert interactions are required for formation of learners’ identity and practice as members of knowledge-building communities, whether in professional/career contexts or in their roles as community members and global citizens.

Note that these four categories of interactions are not specific to online learning, but are also usually found on campuses. Tom though speculates as to how online learning could lead to more productive ways of providing this support.

Can you scale up ‘real’ learning online?

I think this is a good starting point but I would like to take the discussion further, and in particular focus on the point that Tom and David Trick raise in the HEQCO main report (p. 42):

We conclude that the purpose of adopting online learning should be to preserve and sustain what we value most in higher education: instruction that enables learners to develop new ways of knowing – and doing and being – that will prepare them to face the challenges of our times. This may at first seem paradoxical, since much of this “learning that matters most” may be the least amenable to scale up with online learning.

The concern is that the means by which higher education enables ‘new ways of knowing’, such as mentoring, one-on-one discussion and argument between professor and student, individualized instruction and informal assessment  as an ongoing process, student ‘bonding’ over intellectual and other pursuits, such as experimental and engineering design, cannot be scaled up through technology, although much of it may be replicated in online learning, just not at scale.

The problem here is that it is essential to be clear about what the magic of the campus really is, before even beginning to discuss whether it can be reproduced online and then scaled up. (I don’t want to get into the discussion of whether the magic of the campus is actually present on many campuses – I have been to too many campuses which are solely commuter campuses with lectures and little else. However, the issue here is about scaling up quality higher education, which for the sake of argument I will assume includes ‘qualitative’ activities such as personal mentoring.)

I will therefore work through the four types of learner support with an analysis of whether can they support higher level learning outcomes online and at scale and if so how. This post focuses on the first form of interaction.

Learner-content interactions

Computer-marked feedback

Psychologists such as Skinner have shown since the 1930s that comprehension/understanding and memorization of learning can be improved/enhanced through immediate feedback. Distance educators in the 1960s started building in short self-assessment questions in print-based learning materials (with correct or model answers on separate pages.) School textbooks also frequently use such methods. Research also showed the self-assessment questions need to be spaced regularly but that too many self-assessment activities become counter-productive, with students skipping them. Designers of MOOCs have recently ‘rediscovered’ that immediate student feedback can also be done online and students like it. The advantage of online self-assessment is that the answers are ‘hidden’ until the student attempts an answer. Research has shown this requires more effort and results in greater learning gains than jumping straight to the answer. There are of course huge economies of scale – once the self-assessment item is designed, it can be used by an infinite number of learners.

Tom Carey is correct in noting that computer-marked questions or feedback work particularly well for ‘ technical mastery outcomes, e.g., performance tasks with single solutions and predictable pathways to completion (allowing adaptive systems to provide task guidance)’ but instructional designers in open and distance learning institutions and corporate training have  also designed some fairly sophisticated self-assessment questions that require critical thinking, problem-solving, or sentence-based ‘qualitative’ answers, as well as multiple-choice, single answer questions. For self-assessment purposes, these more qualitative questions can work very well with a range of sample answers, and with automated feedback on why some answers are ‘better’ than others. However, these are more difficult to design (and hence more costly), but the cost is justified provided there are enough learners.

The problems start to arise though with computer-marked questions when they are used for the purposes of formal student assessment. Computer-based assignments in general do not work well for assessments dealing with complex issues, requiring creative or critical thinking, or  evaluation of alternative explanations, or complex problem-solving that require integration of several elements, i.e. computer-marked assignments do not handle well the assessment of learning outcomes requiring many of the higher order learning skills,. Students sometimes come up with valid answers that have not been anticipated by the designers of the questions. Handling semantics or meaning in everyday language in computer-assessed questions is still a major challenge for computing. Also for formal assessment purposes the items need to be changed for each assessment to avoid cheating. There is a whole industry built around the validation and reliability of computer-marked assignments. Experience suggests that such testing has some value in particular circumstances, but does not work well for assessing many kinds of learning outcomes, and especially the higher-order learning skills. More importantly, there are serious epistemological or philosophical objections to the use of computer-marked assignments in many subject areas such as literature, history, education and even business studies, where qualitative judgements are core to the subject area.

Nevertheless there are opportunities in online computer-marked questions for self-assessment in helping build a good foundation but automated forms of formal assessment are more limited for advanced levels of learning, except perhaps in mathematically-based subject areas. Nevertheless, more could be done in online learning to build in regular and creative forms of self-assessment, as used judiciously, it could increase learning effectiveness.

Moving the work to learners

I would suggest that there is another (and better) way of increasing productivity in learner-content interactions and that is through the re-design of courses. This would be a move to more of a discovery approach to teaching and learning, where the students interact more autonomously with learning materials. Thus students manage their own interactions with course content, through knowledge management and project work, but within a monitored learning design.

For instance, students would be assessed on a particular subject or topic through an e-portfolio of work that demonstrates the knowledge and skills they have worked their way through in the subject area. The content itself becomes a means to an end. The focus would be as much on students developing higher order learning skills as on mastering content.

The subject expert/senior professor would be more of a teaching consultant, guiding students or determining sources for students to search or use, designing projects to be worked on, providing principles and criteria for developing their project work, and providing rubrics and guidelines for assessment.

Scaling would be handled by the appointment of teaching assistants or preferably adjuncts who would monitor group work, provide individual mentoring where necessary, and would assess the final work of the students. The senior professor would monitor the teaching assistants or adjuncts, intervene directly with student groups where necessary, and would ensure consistency in assessment between TAs or adjuncts.

The productivity goal is to move as much of the effort in learning to the students, enabling one senior professor to manage many more students, especially in first and second year programs, without increasing his or her overall teaching load, while at the same time ensuring there is adequate support for learners through the use of lower paid but still highly skilled/trained teaching assistants or adjuncts supervised by the senior professor. This would not be lead to such huge productivity gains as can be achieved in online content delivery, but would still be an advance on current methods, especially in terms of higher quality learning outcomes focused on the development of skills that students will need in work and society.

Conclusion

As they say in Britain, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Online learning does not necessarily have to equate with massive content delivery or computer-marked assessment. There may be other ways in which online learning  - or put in another way, better course design that uses online learning appropriately – could improve productivity. In particular a move towards giving students more autonomy in finding, analyzing, evaluating and applying information, within a learning design that provides appropriate learner support, could enable senior professors to work more productively, and enable learners to interact with content in a more interesting and productive manner than through computer-assessment or feedback.

Next

In the next post on this topic, I will discuss ways in which learner-learner interactions can be used to improve outcomes while reducing costs (I hope!). In the meantime, comments, suggestions and alternative ways to recreate the magic of the campus more productively online will be very welcome.

Webinar

Tom Carey will be doing a CIDER webinar on Tuesday (October 2) entitled:

What Kinds of Learning Can We Scale with Online Resources and Activities (and what can’t we scale)?

Description: This presentation will summarize recent research for the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario on the impact of emerging developments in online learning for Quality and Productivity in higher education. The main discussion points will be the analysis of scalable learning resources and activities,  and the way different learning interactions may (or may not) be scalable.

If you can’t log in live (https://connect.athabascau.ca/cidersession) the session will be recorded.