July 29, 2016

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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Student at computer at home 2

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.

 

 

10 key takeaways about differences between classroom, blended, online and open learning

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

Every teacher or instructor needs to decide where on the continuum a particular course or program should be

Lucky readers: you get a bonus! This is really a brief summary of all of the ten previous posts on this topic, which constitute Chapter 10 of my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age:

Key takeaways

1. There is a continuum of technology-based learning, from ‘pure’ face-to-face teaching to fully online programs. Every teacher or instructor needs to decide where on the continuum a particular course or program should be.

2. We do not have good research evidence or theories to make this decision, although we do have growing experience of the strengths and limitations of online learning. What is particularly missing is an evidence-based analysis of the strengths and limitations of face-to-face teaching when online learning is also available.

3. In the absence of good theory, I have suggested four factors to consider when deciding on mode of delivery, and in particular the different uses of face-to-face and online learning in blended courses:

  • your preferred teaching strategy, in terms of methods and learning outcomes
  • student characteristics and needs
  • the pedagogical and presentational requirements of the subject matter, in terms of (a) content and (b) skills
  • the resources available to an instructor (including the instructor’s time).

4. The move to blended or hybrid learning in particular means rethinking the use of the campus and the facilities needed fully to support learning in a hybrid mode.

5. Open educational resources offer many benefits but they need to be well designed and embedded within a rich learning environment to be effective.

6. The increasing availability of OER, open textbooks, open research and open data means that in future, almost all academic content will be open and freely accessible over the Internet.

7. As a result, students will increasingly look to institutions for learning support and help with the development of skills needed in a digital age rather than with the delivery of content. This will have major consequences for the role of teachers/instructors and the design of courses.

8. OER and other forms of open education will lead to increased modularization and disaggregation of learning services, which are needed to respond to the increasing diversity of learner needs in a digital age.

9. MOOCs are essentially a dead end with regard to providing learners who do not have adequate access to education with high quality qualifications. The main value of MOOCs is in providing opportunities for non-formal education and supporting communities of practice.

10. OER, MOOCs, open textbooks and other digital forms of open-ness are important in helping to widen access to learning opportunities, but ultimately these are enhancements rather than a replacement for a well-funded public education system, which remains the core foundation for enabling equal access to educational opportunities.

Next

Chapter 10 on Modes of Delivery and Open Education is now published.

Chapter 11 will be on design strategies for ensuring high quality learning. Since it is based on an earlier series of blog posts called Nine steps to quality online learning, I will not be publishing blog posts on the book version. This should be ready by the end of next week.

I will however publish blog posts on Chapter 12, the concluding chapter, as I develop it. Chapter 12 will discuss issues around faculty development/training, institutional strategies for teaching and learning, and likely developments for teaching and learning in the near future. (Any other suggestions for topics for this last chapter will be much appreciated, as I need to focus on key issues that have wide interest that have not been covered elsewhere in the book.)

I will also start returning gradually to reviewing new developments, research articles, conferences, etc., as before I started on the open textbook project.

Seeking the unique pedagogical characteristics of video

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Figure 9. The Open University on iTunesU

Figure 9. The Open University on iTunesU

This is the third post on the unique characteristics of different media, for my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

Although it will be seen that there are good pedagogical reasons for using video, it presents much more of a challenge to faculty than the use of text or audio. Producing video that exploits the unique characteristics of video is not something that most faculty have the time or ability to do themselves, and adds substantial cost to a course.

The alternative of course is video available as an open educational resources, and good luck with that. I had great difficulty in finding suitable open educational resources to use as examples (although there are talking heads in abundance). If anything, the availability of good quality video OERs has declined recently, with much of the material previously available through Open Learn and other sources such as iTunesU and even YouTube now removed. Copyright of good quality educational video is still pretty restricted, probably because of the high cost of producing it.

Reliability of OERs is becoming a critically important issue. If an instructor cannot rely on an OER being available in a year or two after incorporation into their teaching, OERs won’t get used. Maybe this is after all a good reason for learning object repositories.

Ideally, I would like to be able to link each one of these unique features to an open source video example. After two days trawling, I’ve come up with one (thank you, University of Nottingham, and Clint Lalonde for suggesting it!) So any suggestions for ‘open’ videos that provide examples for each of the characteristics below would be really appreciated. (Yes, I know I should ask a librarian, but I’m working on my own these days).

More power, more complexity

Although there have been massive changes in video technology over the last 25 years, resulting in dramatic reductions in the costs of both creating and distributing video, the unique educational characteristics are largely unaffected. (More recent computer-generated media such as simulations, will be analysed under ‘Computing’, in Section 9.5.4).

Video is a much richer medium than either text or audio, as in addition to its ability to offer text and sound, it can also offer dynamic or moving pictures. Thus while it can offer all the affordances of audio, and some of text, it also has unique pedagogical characteristics of its own. Once again, there has been considerable research on the use of video in education, and again I will be drawing on research from the Open University (Bates, 1985 2005; Koumi, 2006) as well as from Mayer (2009).

Presentational features

Video can be used to:

  • demonstrate experiments or experimental situations, particularly:
  • illustrate principles involving dynamic change or movement
  • illustrate abstract principles through the use of specially constructed physical models
  • illustrate principles involving three-dimensional space
  • demonstrate changes over time through the use of animation, slow-motion, or speeded-up video
  • substitute for a field visit, by:
    • providing students with an accurate, comprehensive visual picture of a site, in order to place the topic under study in context
    • demonstrating the relationship between different elements of a system under study (e.g. production processes, ecological balance)
    • by identifying and distinguishing between different classes or categories of phenomena at the site (e.g. in forest ecology)
    • to observe differences in scale and process between laboratory and mass-production techniques
    • through the use of models, animations or simulations, to teach certain advanced scientific or technological concepts (such as theories of relativity or quantum physics) without students having to master highly advanced mathematical techniques,
  • bring students primary resource or case-study material, i.e. recording of naturally occurring events which, through editing and selection, demonstrate or illustrate principles covered elsewhere in a course
  • demonstrate ways in which abstract principles or concepts developed elsewhere in the course have been applied to real-world problems
  • synthesise a wide range of variables into a single recorded event, e.g. to suggest how real world problems can be resolved
  • demonstrate decision-making processes or decisions ‘in action’ (e.g. triage in an emergency situation) by:
    • recording the decision-making process as it occurs in real contexts
    • recording ‘staged’ simulations, dramatisation or role-playing
  • demonstrate correct procedures in using tools or equipment (including safety procedures)
  • demonstrate methods or techniques of performance (e.g. mechanical skills such as stripping and re-assembling a carburetor, sketching, drawing or painting techniques, or dance)
  • record and archive events that are crucial to topics in a course, but which may disappear or be destroyed in the near future, such as, for instance, street graffiti or condemned buildings
  • demonstrate practical activities to be carried out by students, on their own.

Skills development

This usually requires the video to be integrated with student activities. The ability to stop, rewind and replay video becomes crucial for skills development, as student activity usually takes place separately from the actual viewing of the video. This may mean thinking through carefully activities for students related to the use of video.

If video is not used directly for lecturing, research clearly indicates that students generally need to be guided as to what to look for in video, at least initially in their use of video for learning. There are various techniques for relating concrete events with abstract principles, such as through audio narration, using a still frame to highlight the observation, or repeating a small section of the program. Bates and Gallagher (1977) found that using video for developing higher order analysis or evaluation was a teachable skill that needs to be built into the development of a course or program, to get the best results.

Typical uses of video for skills development include:

  • enabling students to recognize naturally occurring phenomena or classifications (e.g. teaching strategies, symptoms of mental illness, classroom behaviour) in context
  • enabling students to analyse a situation, using principles either introduced in the video recording or covered elsewhere in the course, such as a textbook or lecture
  • interpreting artistic performance (e.g. drama, spoken poetry, movies, paintings, sculpture, or other works of art)
  • analysis of music composition, through the use of musical performance, narration and graphics
  • testing the applicability or relevance of abstract concepts or generalisations in real world contexts
  • looking for alternative explanations for real world phenomena.

Strengths and weaknesses of video as a teaching medium

One factor that makes video powerful for learning is its ability to show the relationship between concrete examples and abstract principles, with usually the sound track relating the abstract principles to concrete events shown in the video. Video is particularly useful for recording events or situations where it would be too difficult, dangerous, expensive or impractical to bring students to such events.

Thus its main strengths are as follows:

  • linking concrete events and phenomena to abstract principles and vice versa
  • the ability of students to stop and start, so they can integrate activities with video
  • provides alternative approaches that can help students having difficulties in learning abstract concepts
  • adds substantial interest to a course by linking it to real world issues
  • a growing amount of freely available, high quality academic videos
  • good for developing some of the higher level intellectual skills and some of the more practical skills needed in a digital age
  • the use of low cost cameras and free editing software enables some forms of video to be cheaply produced.

The main weaknesses of video are:

  • many faculty have no knowledge or experience in using video other than for recording lecturing
  • there is currently a very limited amount of high quality educational video free for downloading, because the cost of developing high quality educational video that exploits the unique characteristics of the medium is still relatively high. Links also often go dead after a while, affecting the reliability of outsourced video. The availability of free material for educational use will improve over time, but currently finding appropriate and free videos that meet the specific needs of a teacher or instructor can be time-consuming or such material may just not be available or reliable
  • creating original material that exploits the unique characteristics of video is time-consuming, and still relatively expensive, because it usually needs professional video production
  • to get the most out of educational video, students need specially designed activities that sit outside the video itself
  • students often reject videos that require them to do analysis or interpretation; they often prefer direct instruction that focuses primarily on comprehension. Such students need to be trained to use video differently, which requires time to be devoted to developing such skills.

For these reasons, video is not being used enough education. When used it is often an afterthought or an ‘extra’, rather than an integral part of the design, or is used merely to replicate a classroom lecture, rather than exploiting the unique characteristics of video.

 Assessment

If video is being used to develop the skills outlined in Section 9.5.3.3, then it is essential that these skills are assessed and count for grading. Indeed, one possible means of assessment might be to ask students to analyse or interpret a selected video, or even to develop their own media project, using video they themselves have collected or produced, using their own devices.

Activity 9.4

1. Take one of the courses you are teaching. What key presentational aspects of video could be important for this course?

2. Look at the skills listed in Section 1.3 of this book. Which of these skills would best be developed through the use of video rather than other media? How would you do this using video-based teaching?

3. Under what conditions would it be more appropriate for students to be assessed by asking them to analyse or make their own video recording? How could this be done under assessment conditions?

4. Type in the name of your topic + video into Google.

  • How many videos come up?
  • What’s their quality like?
  • Could you use any of them in your teaching?
  • If so, how would you integrate them into your course?
  • Could you make a better video on the topic?
  • What would enable you to do this?

Here are some criteria I would apply to what you find:

  • it is relevant to what you want to teach
  • it demonstrates clearly a particular topic or subject and links it to what the student is intended to learn
  • it is short and to the point
  • the example is well produced (clear camera work, good presenter, clear audio)
  • it provides something that I could not do easily myself
  • it is freely available for non-commercial use

I have to say that most of the examples I found on the Internet do NOT meet all of these criteria! The videos I have linked to in this section do, but then some are produced for the Open University. Can traditional university in-house media departments meet this standard?

Feedback

1. Are there other characteristics unique to video that I’ve missed?

2. Is this the best way to approach this topic? (I accept I need lots more examples in video format). Will this approach to choosing/ using video be helpful for faculty?

3. Any examples of using video for assessment?

4. What do you think of the principles I suggested for selecting video OERs in the activity?  Can traditional university in-house media departments meet this standard in producing OERs, or is it just too expensive to make these kinds of video?

5. Any other suggested references?

References

Bates, A. (1985) Broadcasting in Education: An Evaluation London: Constables (out of print – try a good library)

Bates, A. (2005) Technology, e-Learning and Distance Education London/New York: Routledge

Koumi, J. (2006). Designing video and multimedia for open and flexible learning. London: Routledge.

Mayer, R. E. (2009). Multimedia learning (2nd ed). New York: Cambridge University Press.

 

A new way to look at the costs of digital media in education

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Image: © Ehrenberg, D., AlleyWatch.com, 2013

Image: © Ehrenberg, D., AlleyWatch.com, 2013

I said it was going to be fun looking at the costs of digital media in education, but it wasn’t. When I came to write this section, I thought it would be a breeze. I wrote about this topic as recently as 2005. All I needed to do is tweak it a little to bring it up to date, I thought.

However, there has truly been a revolution in the media available for teaching and learning in the last ten years, and this revolution has completely up-ended many of the assumptions about costs previously made in this field. Most of the research on costs of educational media had been done by people (like myself) working mainly in distance education, because that was where technology was being mainly used for teaching. That has all changed now: media have gone mainstream.

What is really interesting though is how little research there has been done on the costs of new digital media in education (MOOCs are a slight exception). Nevertheless, when I dug into the topic, I came to what struck me at first as an astonishing conclusion: the costs of media don’t matter any more in media selection. Use what suits best your educational purpose, because it’s all low cost now.

Of course, that is a gross over-simplification. Like many other topics in this area, straight comparisons between different media don’t work. What you have to look at are the conditions or factors that influence costs, across all media. That’s what I’ve tried to explore in this section. Remember I’m targeting teachers and instructors, not economists or instructional designers. So here goes, and please, let me have feedback on this (see the end of this rather long post):

9.4.1 A revolution in media

Until as recently as ten years ago, cost was a major discriminator affecting the choice of technology (Hülsmann, 2000, 2003; Rumble, 2001; Bates, 2005). For instance, for educational purposes, audio (lectures, radio, audio-cassettes) was far cheaper than print, which in turn was far cheaper than most forms of computer-based learning, which in turn was far cheaper than video (television, cassettes or video-conferencing). All these media were usually seen as either added costs to regular teaching, or too expensive to use to replace face-to-face teaching, except for purely distance education on a fairly large scale.

However, there have been dramatic reductions in the cost of developing and distributing all kinds of media (except face-to-face teaching) in the last ten years, due to several factors:

  • rapid developments in consumer technologies such as smart phones that enable text, audio and video to be both created and transmitted by end users at low cost
  • compression of digital media, enabling even high bandwidth video or television to be carried over wireless, landlines and the Internet at an economic cost (at least in economically advanced countries)
  • improvements in media software, making it relatively easy for non-professional users to create and distribute all kinds of media
  • increasing amounts of media-based open educational resources, which are already developed learning materials that are free for teachers and students alike to use.

The good news then is that in general, and in principle, cost should no longer be an automatic discriminator in the choice of media. If you are happy to accept this statement at face value, than you can skip the rest of this chapter. Choose the mix of media that best meets your teaching needs, and don’t worry about which medium is likely to cost more. Indeed, a good case could be made that it would now be cheaper to replace face-to-face teaching with purely online learning, if cost was the only consideration.

In practice however costs can vary enormously both between and within media, depending once again on context and design. Since the main cost from a teacher’s perspective is their time, it is important to know what are the ‘drivers’ of cost, that is, what factors are associated with increased costs, depending on the context and the medium being used. These factors are less influenced by new technological developments, and can therefore be seen as ‘foundational’ principles when considering the costs of educational media.

Unfortunately there are many different factors that can influence the actual cost of using media in education, which makes a detailed discussion of costs very complex. As a result, I will try to identify the main cost drivers, then provide a table that provides a simplified guide to how these factors influence the costs of different media, including face-to-face teaching. This guide again should be considered as a heuristic device. So see this chapter as Media Costs 101.

9.4.1 Cost categories

The main cost categories to be considered in using educational media and technologies, and especially blended or online learning, are as follows:

9.4.1.2 Development

These are the costs needed to pull together or create learning materials using particular media or technologies. There are several sub-categories of development costs:

  • production costs: making a video or building a course section in a learning management system. Included in these costs will be the time of specialist staff, such as web designers or audio-visual specialists, as well as any costs in web design or video production
  • your time as an instructor: the work you have to do as part of developing or producing materials.  This will include planning/course design as well as development. Your time is money, and probably the largest single cost in using educational technologies, but more importantly, if you are developing learning materials you are not doing other things, such as research or interacting with students, so there is a real cost, even if it is not expressed in dollar terms.
  • copyright clearance if you are using third party materials such as photos or video clips. Again, this is more likely to be thought of as time rather than money
  • probably the cost of an instructional designer in terms of their time

Development costs are usually fixed or ‘once only’ and are independent of the number of students. Once media are developed, they are usually scalable, in that once produced, they can be used by any number of learners without increased development costs. Using open educational resources can help reduce greatly media development costs.

9.4.1.3 Delivery

This includes the cost of the educational activities needed during offering the course and would include instructional time spent interacting with students, instructional time spent on marking assignments, and would include the time of other staff supporting delivery, such as teaching assistants, adjuncts for additional sections and instructional designers and technical support staff.

Because of the cost of human factors such as instructional time and technical support needed in media-based teaching, delivery costs tend to increase as student numbers increase, and also have to be repeated each time the course is on offer, i.e. they are recurrent. However, increasingly with Internet-based delivery, there is usually a zero direct technology cost in delivery.

9.4.1.4 Maintenance costs

Once materials for a course are created, they need to be maintained. Urls go dead, set readings may go out of print or expire, and more importantly new developments in the subject area may need to be accommodated. Thus once a course is offered, there are ongoing maintenance costs.

Instructional designers and/or media professionals can manage some of the maintenance, but nevertheless teachers or instructors will need to be involved with decisions about content replacement or updating. Maintenance is not usually a major time consumer for a single course, but if an instructor is involved in the design and production of several online courses, maintenance time can build to a significant amount.

Maintenance costs are usually independent of the number of students, but are dependent on the number of courses an instructor is responsible for, and are recurrent each year.

9.4.1.5 Overheads

These include infrastructure or overhead costs, such as the cost of licensing a learning management system, lecture capture technology and servers for video steaming. These are real costs but not ones that can be allocated to a single course but will be shared across a number of courses. Overheads are usually considered to be institutional costs and, although important, probably will not influence a teacher’s decision about which media to use, provided these services are already in place and the institution does not directly charge for such services.

9.4.2 Cost drivers

The primary factors that drive cost are

  • the development/production of materials,
  • the delivery of materials,
  • number of students/scalability
  • the experience of an instructor working with the medium
  • whether the instructor develops materials alone (self-development) or works with professionals

Production of technology-based materials such as a video program, or a Web site, is a fixed cost, in that it is not influenced by how many students take the course. However, production costs can vary depending on the design of the course. Engle (2014) showed that depending on the method of video production, the development costs for a MOOC could vary by a factor of six (the most expensive production method – full studio production – being six times that of an instructor self-recording on a laptop).

Nevertheless, once produced, the cost is independent of the number of students. Thus the more expensive the course to develop, the greater the need to increase student numbers to reduce the average cost per student. (Or put another way, the greater the number of students, the more reason to ensure that high quality production is used, whatever the medium). In the case of MOOCs (which tend to be almost twice as expensive to develop as an online course for credit using a learning management system – University of Ottawa, 2013) the number of learners is so great that the average cost per student is very small. Thus there are opportunities for economies of scale from the development of digital material, provided that student course enrolments can be increased (which may not always be the case). This can be described as the potential for the scalability of a medium.

Similarly, there are costs in teaching the course once the course is developed. These tend to be variable costs, in that they increase as class size increases. If student-teacher interaction, through online discussion forums and assignment marking, is to be kept to a manageable level, then the teacher-student ratio needs to be kept relatively low (for instance, between 1:25 to 1:40, depending on the subject area and the level of the course). The more students, the more time a teacher will need to spend on delivery, or additional contract instructors will need to be hired. Either way, increased student numbers generally will lead to increased costs. xMOOCs are an exception. Their main value proposition is that they do not provide direct learner support, so have zero delivery costs. However, this is probably the reason why such a small proportion of participants successfully complete MOOCs.

There may be benefits then for a teacher or for an institution in spending more money up front for interactive learning materials if this leads to less demand for teacher-student interaction. For instance, a mathematics course might be able to use automated testing and feedback and simulations and diagrams, and pre-designed answers to frequently asked questions, with less or even no time spent on individual assignment marking or communication with the teacher. In this case it may be possible to manage teacher-student ratios as high as 1:200 or more, without significant loss of quality.

Also, experience in using or working with a particular medium or delivery method is important. The first time an instructor uses a particular medium such as podcasting, it takes much longer than subsequent productions or offerings. Some media or technologies though need much more effort to learn to use than others. Thus a related cost driver is whether the instructor works alone (self-development) or works with media professionals. Self-developing materials will usually take longer for an instructor than working with professionals.

There are advantages in teachers and instructors working with media professionals when developing digital media. Media professionals will ensure the development of a quality product, and above all can save teachers or instructors considerable time, for instance through the choice of appropriate software, editing, and storage and streaming of digital materials. Instructional designers can help in suggesting appropriate applications of different media for different learning outcomes. Thus as with all educational design, a team approach is likely to be more effective, and working with other professionals will help control the time teachers and instructors spend on media development.

Lastly, design decisions are critical. Costs are driven by design decisions within a medium. For instance cost drivers are different between lectures and seminars (or lab classes) in face-to-face teaching. Similarly, video can be used just to record talking heads, as in lecture capture, or can be used to exploit the affordances of the medium (see Section 9. 5), such as demonstrating processes or location shooting. Computing has a wide and increasing range of possible designs, including online collaborative learning (OCL), computer-based learning, animations, simulations or virtual worlds. Social media are another group of media that also need to be considered.

Figure 9.4 attempts to capture the complexity of cost factors, focusing mainly on the perspective of a teacher or instructor making decisions. Again, this should be seen as a heuristic device, a way of thinking about the issue. Other factors could be added (such as social media, or maintenance of materials). I have given my own personal ratings for each cell, based on my experience. I have taken conventional teaching as a medium or ‘average’ cost, then ranked cells as to whether there is a higher or lower cost factor for the particular medium. Other readers may well rate the cells differently.

Figure 9. Drivers of cost for educational media

Figure 9.4 Drivers of cost for educational media

Thus although in particular the time it takes to develop and deliver learning using different technologies is likely to influence an instructor’s decision about what technology to use, it is not a simple equation. For instance, developing a good quality online course using a mix of video and text materials may take much more of the instructor’s time to prepare than if the course was offered through classroom teaching. However, the online course may take less time in delivery over several years, because students may be spending more time on task online, and less time in direct interaction with the instructor. Once again, we see that design is a critical factor in how costs are assessed.

In short, from an instructor perspective, time is the critical cost factor. Technologies that take a lot of time to use are less likely to be used than those that are easy to use and thus save time. But once again design decisions can greatly affect how much time teachers or instructors need to spend on any medium, and the ability of teachers and students to create their own educational media is becoming an increasingly important factor.

9.4.3 Issues for consideration

In recent years, university faculty have generally gravitated more to lecture capture for online course delivery, particularly in institutions where online or distance learning is relatively new, because it is ‘simpler’ to do than redesign and create mainly text based materials in learning management systems. Lecture capture also more closely resembles the traditional classroom method. Pedagogically though (depending on the subject area) it may be less effective than an online course using collaborative learning and online discussion forums, as we shall see in Section 9.5. Also, from an institutional perspective lecture capture has a much higher technology cost than a learning management system.

Also, students themselves can now use their own devices to create multimedia materials for project work or for assessment purposes in the form of e-portfolios. Media allow instructors, if they wish, to move a lot of the hard work in teaching and learning from themselves to the students. Media allow students to spend more time on task, and low cost, consumer media such as mobile phones or tablets enable students themselves to create media artefacts, enabling them to demonstrate their learning in concrete ways. This does not mean that instructor ‘presence’ is no longer needed when students are studying online, but it does enable a shift in where and how a teacher or instructor can spend their time in supporting learning.

9.4.4 Questions for consideration

You may be better answering these questions when you have read Section 9.5 on the affordances of media. However, I think you will find it interesting to answer these questions before reading Section 9.5, then compare your answers after you have read Section 9.5

  1. Are concerns about the possible cost/demands on your time influencing your decisions on what media to use? If so in what ways? Has this section on costs changed your mind?
  2. How much time do you spend preparing lectures? Could that time be better spent preparing learning materials, then using the time saved from delivering lectures on interaction with students (online and/or face-to-face)?
  3. What kind of help can you get in your institution from instructional designers and media professionals for media design and development? What media decisions will the answer to this question suggest to you? For instance, if you are in a k-12 school with little or no chance for professional support, what kind of media and design decisions are you likely to make?
  4. To what extent have you explored open educational resources in your subject area? Type in the name of your course or topic + OER into Google  and see what comes up. How would the availability of such free media influence the design of your teaching?
  5. If you were filling in the cells for Figure 9.4, what differences would there be with my entries? Why?
  6. In Figure 9.4, add the following media: e-portfolios (in computing) and add another section under computing: social media. Add blogs, wikis and cMOOCs. How would you fill in the cells for each of these for development, delivery, etc.? Are there other media you would also add?
  7. Do you agree with the statement: It would now be cheaper to replace face-to-face teaching with purely online learning, if cost was the only consideration? What are the implications for your teaching if this is really true? What considerations would still justify face-to-face teaching?

Feedback

Please! In particular:

  1. Are there more recent publications on the costs of different media (as distinct from online or blended learning in general) that I have missed and should include?
  2. How do you react to Figure 9.4? Is it a helpful way to think of the different conditions or factors that influence costs? If not, what approach would you take to this topic?
  3. How useful are the questions for consideration above (9.4.4) from an instructor’s perspective? Can you suggest better ones?
  4. Do you agree with the following statements:
    1. cost should no longer be an automatic discriminator in the choice of mediaChoose the mix of media that best meets your teaching needs, and don’t worry about which medium is likely to cost more.
    2. It would now be cheaper to replace face-to-face teaching with purely online learning, if cost was the only consideration. 
    3. university faculty have generally gravitated more to lecture capture for online course delivery, particularly in institutions where online or distance learning is relatively new, because it is ‘simpler’ to do than redesign and create mainly text based materials in learning management systems.
    4. Media allow students to spend more time on task, and low cost, consumer media such as mobile phones or tablets enable students themselves to create media artefacts, enabling them to demonstrate their learning in concrete ways. This does not mean that instructor ‘presence’ is no longer needed when students are studying online, but it does enable a shift in where and how a teacher or instructor can spend their time in supporting learning.
  5. Does this approach to the costs of digital media work for you? If not, what would you suggest?

Up next

The pedagogical affordances of different media:

  • text
  • audio
  • video
  • computing
  • social media
  • face-to-face teaching

References

Bates, A. (2005) Technology, e-Learning and Distance Education London/New York: Routledge

Engle, W. (2104)UBC MOOC Pilot: Design and Delivery Vancouver BC: University of British Columbia

Hülsmann, T. (2000) The Costs of Open Learning: A Handbook Oldenburg: Bibliotheks- und Informationssytem der Universität Oldenburg

Hülsmann, T. (2003) Costs without camouflage: a cost analysis of Oldenburg University’s  two graduate certificate programs offered  as part of the online Master of Distance Education (MDE): a case study, in Bernath, U. and Rubin, E., (eds.) Reflections on Teaching in an Online Program: A Case Study Oldenburg, Germany: Bibliothecks-und Informationssystem der Carl von Ossietsky Universität Oldenburg

Rumble, G. (2001) The Cost and Costing of Networked Learning Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Volume 5, Issue 2

University of Ottawa (2013)Report of the e-Learning Working Group Ottawa ON: The University of Ottawa