April 25, 2014

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.

Welcome back and a review of online learning developments in July and August

Listen with webReader

UBC campus fall

Here in Canada, tomorrow is the start of a new academic year. I know, because our garbage cans are full and the back lane is full of discarded furniture as the new students move into new lodgings behind our house and all the garbage and awful furniture left by the former student residents is thrown out. Next week the student parties will start.

On a more positive note, I hope you all had a wonderful summer, turned off your digital devices for as long as possible, and enjoyed the fresh air. So for those who are mentally healthy but feeling a little lost about what may have happened in the blogosphere in July and August, here is a quick summary. (Just click on the links for the articles of interest).

Productivity and online learning

With governments everywhere concerned about getting more for less in education, the focus is turning increasingly to whether online learning can improve productivity in higher education. The mania around MOOCs is largely driven by the promise that these will enable higher education to reach the masses at a much lower cost. But for every action there is a reaction, and MOOC mania is resulting in some hard questions being asked about what productivity in higher education really means.

I started a conversation about this with a post about the need for more theory or, as Stephen Downes suggested, clearer models of productivity in online learning, and followed it by looking at whether flexible learning leads to more productivity, and if so, how it would be measured. Sir John Daniel provided a review of William Bowen’s book that aims to answer the question: Could the growth in online courses slow the rising cost of college and help solve the crisis of affordability?

Thus the publication in August of Tom Carey and David Trick’s report for HEQCO (the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario) on productivity and quality in online learning was very timely. I reviewed and critiqued the report, and Tom Carey has used this blog to provide some thoughtful reflections that were more speculative and hence not included in the report. In particular, Tom has raised the important question of what elements of online learner support can be scaled up without loss of quality, and what should not or cannot be scaled so easily. (There will be more discussion of this issue in later posts on this site).

Lastly, I questioned why many universities and colleges charge more for online courses, arguing that if done properly, online learning should cost no more and indeed can be done less expensively than on-campus teaching..

The issue of productivity and online learning will be the topic of further posts on this site through the fall, as I strive to identify models and principles of educational productivity and the role of online learning.

MOOCs

The mania continued during the summer, with San Jose State trying a new model to improve – somewhat successfully – their completion rate for MOOC-based credit courses. What the research shows is that learners taking MOOCs are often very different demographically from those taking credit courses in state universities (surprise, surprise).

WCET (the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies) has published a series of blog posts over the summer reflecting experiences in MOOC development, delivery and accreditation.

In a very thoughtful paper, Michael Peters attempts to set MOOCs within ‘a wider set of socio-technological changes that might be better explained within a theory of postindustrial education focusing on social media as the new culture.‘ This is one of the best papers I have read about where MOOCs fit into the broader ecology of education and society.

Copyright

Michael Geist reports that AUCC (the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada) has just developed guidelines ‘that offer more detailed, specific recommendations for many common copyright uses within education environments.‘ I argue that through its legal action against York University, Access Copyright is deliberately clouding the clear principles around fair dealing laid down by recent Supreme Court of Canada decisions, and that as a result the AUCC guidelines appear to be more restrictive than necessary.

Building successful consortia

One way in which productivity could be improved is by avoiding waste and duplication in online learning, with universities and colleges working together rather than in competition. Two publications came out in the summer that looked at what made for successful collaboration or co-ordination across state /provincial systems.

WCET’s e-Learning Consortia Common Interest Group collected profiles and contact information for 48 consortia in both the USA and Canada (more are likely to be added.). For each consortium that responded, the profile includes their mission, a brief description, services that they offer, initiatives and interests, organizational documents, and contact information, including websites and social media.

University Business published an excellent article in August that sets out how four states in the U.S.A. – Georgia, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Florida – are co-ordinating their higher education online offerings from state institutions. I provided an extension of examples in Canada.

And apparently there was a meeting in Toronto in July between Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities (MCTU) bureaucrats and university and college presidents at which the setting up of a not-for-profit consortium to develop and deliver online degrees and diplomas across the province was discussed. However, this is strictly a rumour – there has been to date no official announcement about this.

iPads

Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the USA, will hand out to students 31,000 free iPads in September under a new $30 million program launched by the district. The plan is that all 640,000 students in the LAUSD will receive their own iPad by 2014.

Calls for papers

Two interesting calls for papers came out in the dog days of summer:

Forthcoming conferences

Myself, I’ll be speaking at:

End note

There, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Now you can get on with your real work: educating students and changing the world. Good luck!

And if you have anything to add to significant developments over the summer – this is a very personal list – please do so. Sharing is good.