August 31, 2016

Who are your online students?

Listen with webReader

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.

 

 

Advice to students about Athabasca University

Listen with webReader
Graduation ceremony at Athabasca University: will 2018 be the last?

Graduation ceremony at Athabasca University: will 2018 be the last?

Anxious students

Not surprisingly, the turmoil at Athabasca University is causing concern for at least some students, and I recognise that I am responsible for some of this anxiety. For instance, I received the following e-mail from one student (reproduced with permission):

Hi Tony, I am thankful for your article on Athabasca’s financial crisis.  This leaves students such as myself in a quandary.  I am interested in transferring to AU from [another Alberta institution] because of my need for more flexibility.  However the report that was just released, made my decision to switch very concerning.  According to the article, and the op-ed you published, it seems like if things aren’t changed at AU then I could be looking for another university in 2016 (in the middle of my degree)…  Obviously this concerns me greatly… what are your thoughts to students?  Do we avoid AU until they get their act together? or do we press on and hope they know what they are doing and won’t screw us over in the end ? Thanks for any thoughts you have.

These are very good questions, and I think AU’s university administration should, if it has not done so already, be giving clear statements or answers to students and potential students about what they should expect over the next five years, given its recent report on sustainability.

My advice to students

However, I could find nothing about the sustainability report and what it could mean for students on the myAU portal (‘a web portal system that provides Athabasca University (AU) students with individualized web services and information’) or in AU News, so here’s my advice to students.

1. Listen carefully to what AU and the provincial government say about the future of the university, and give more weight to that than to my advice. I’m over 1,000 kilometres away and am not well connected these days to AU. Having said that, be circumspect. You may well have to read between the lines, so I’ll give some advice about what I’m looking for.

2. Don’t panic! AU is unlikely to shut down within the next three or even five years. It may go into a deficit in 2017-2018, but that would not be unusual for a university in Canada, nor devastating. What matters is that AU and/or the provincial government have a plan in place to bring it back to a balanced operating budget by 2020. For most current students and even some potential students transferring in, this should be long enough for most of you to complete your qualifications.

For students looking over the next two years or so to start a full degree from Athabasca, this may be more problematic, but by the time you come to make that decision, the situation should be clearer.

It is a harder decision for those thinking about starting in 2015-2016, especially if you are not resident in Alberta.  I would expect any Alberta government and the university to put in place transfer arrangements for Albertan students who start a program at AU but cannot complete it because of decisions by the government or university. For those outside the province, this will likely be much more difficult, unless you are in British Columbia, which has in place a pretty good credit transfer system with Alberta that would include AU credits.

In general, then, I would advise that at least for the next six months, assume that it will be business as usual at Athabasca. But in this period, watch for the following:

3. Good signs. The provincial government replaces the Board and a new President is appointed on a normal 3-5 year contract, with a mandate to produce a new vision for the university and a sustainable financial/business plan that will support that vision.

4. Bad signs: 

  • the above doesn’t happen by the end of this year;
  • the government extends the existing President’s contract by one year or appoints another one year President;
  • the AU faculty and/or staff go on strike;
  • lots of faculty and staff start leaving.

What should you do as a student (or potential student)

Write to Marcia Nelson, Deputy Minister of Innovation and Advanced Education, and state:

  • why Athabasca University is important to you, and in particular what it offers that is not available elsewhere;
  • that you are concerned about the future of the university, why you are concerned, and how this may affect your study plans;
  • what you would like to see, for instance, a new President, Board and senior administration, a vision for the future, a commitment from the Alberta government to support the university, etc.

Writing to the Deputy Minister could make a lot of difference, as the government has some difficult decisions to make over the next few months.

Lastly, Athabasca University is in my view a really important, unique institution that does or should add value to not only Alberta’s but also Canada’s post-secondary education system, but AU is in need of urgent renewal and change. Students (and alumni) can and should have  a major role in ensuring that this happens.

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics: WCET’s analysis of distance education enrolments in the USA

Listen with webReader

Out-of-state students 2

Russell Poulin and Terri Straut have done an invaluable analysis of recent data on distance education enrolments in the USA in the following three blog posts:

Straut, T. and Poulin, R. (2015) IPEDS Fall 2013: Higher Ed Sectors Vary Greatly in Distance Ed Enrollments Boulder CO: Western Co-operative for Educational Technologies

Straut, T. and Poulin, R. (2015) IPEDS Fall 2013: Distance Education Data Reveals More Than Overall Flat Growth Boulder CO: Western Co-operative for Educational Technologies

Straut, T. and Poulin, R. (2015) IPEDS Fall 2013: Less than Half of Fully Distant Students Come from Other States Boulder CO: Western Co-operative for Educational Technologies

These reports should be read in conjunction with these equally valuable posts:

Hill, P. and Poulin, R. (2014) Investigation of IPEDS Distance Education Data: System Not Ready for Modern Trends Boulder CO: Western Co-operative for Educational Technologies/e-Literate

Allen, I.E. and Seaman, J. (2013) Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States  Wellesley MA: Babson College/Quahog Research Group

I am pulling this together in this one post for convenience, but I strongly recommend that you read carefully the original reports.

There are serious methodological issues in the USA data

Over the last ten years or so, the most consistent analyses of enrolments in online learning have been the annual Babson College surveys conducted by Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, with support from the Sloan Foundation. However, this was a voluntary survey, based on a carefully drawn sample of chief academic officers across the USA. The Babson Surveys showed consistent growth of online course enrolments in the order of 10-20 per cent per annum over a the last 10 years, compared with around 2-3 per cent growth in on-campus enrolments, with in 2013 approximately one third of all higher education students in the USA taking at least one fully online course.

However, since the Babson surveys were voluntary, sample-based and dependent on the good will of participating institutions, there was always a concern about the reliability of the data, and especially that the returns might be somewhat biased towards enrolments from institutions actively engaged in online learning, thus suggesting more online enrolments than in reality. Despite these possible limitations the Babson Surveys were invaluable because they provided a comparable set of national data across several years. So while the actual numbers may be a little shaky, the trends were consistent.

Then in 2012 the U.S. Federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) survey, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the U.S. Federal Department of Education, for the first time included distance education in its compulsory annual survey of enrolments in higher education. (One might ask why it took until 2012 to ask for data on distance education, but hey, it’s a start.) Since this is a census rather than a survey, and since it is obligatory, one would expect that the IPEDS data would be more reliable than the Babson surveys.

However, it turns out that there are also major problems with the IPEDS survey. Phil Hill (of the blog e-Literate) and Russell Poulin have indicated the following limitations with IPEDS:

  • problems of definition: Babson focused only on students enrolled in fully online courses; IPEDS asks for enrolments in distance education. Although many institutions have moved their print-based courses online, there are still many print-based distance education courses still out there. How many? We don’t know. Also the IPEDS definition rules out reporting on blended or hybrid courses, and is not precise enough to ensure that different institutions don’t interpret who to include and who to exclude on a consistent basis
  • under-reporting: IPEDS collected data on the assumption that all students enrolled through continuing education departments were taking non-credit distance education courses, and therefore these enrolments were to be excluded. However, in many institutions, continuing education departments have continued to administer for-credit online courses, which institutions have seen as just another form of distance education. (In other institutions, distance education departments have been integrated with central learning technology units, and are thus included in enrolment counts.)
  • the IPEDS survey does not work for innovative programs such as those with continuous enrolments, competency-based learning, or hybrid courses.

Hill and Poulin come to the following conclusions about the 2012 survey:

  • we don’t know the numbers – there are too many flaws in the the data collection methods
  • thus the 2012 numbers are not a credible baseline for future comparisons
  • there are hundreds of thousands of students who have never been reported on any IPEDS survey that has ever been conducted.

It is against this background that we should now examine the recent analyses by Straut and Poulin on the IPEDS data for  2013. However, note their caveat:

Given the errors that we found in colleges reporting to IPEDS, the Fall 2012 distance education reported enrollments create a very unstable base for comparisons.

Main results for 2013

1. Most DE enrolments are in public universities

For those outside the USA, there are quite different types of HE institution, dependent on whether they are publicly funded or privately funded, and whether they operate for profit or not for profit. Distance education is often associated in the USA with diploma mills, or offered by for-profit private institutions, such as the University of Phoenix or Kaplan. As it turns out, this is a fundamental mis-conception. Nearly three-quarters of all DE enrolments are in publicly funded universities. Less than 10% of all DE enrolments are in for-profit private institutions.

2. Students studying exclusively at a distance

Students studying exclusively at a distance constitute about 13% of all enrolments. However, non-profits rely much more on distance students, who make up half their enrolments. Less than 10% of students in public universities are studying exclusively at a distance. The significance of this is that for most students in public universities, DE is a relatively small part of their studies, an option that they exercise occasionally and as needed, and is not seen as a replacement for campus-based studies. On the other hand, there is a substantial if small minority for whom DE is the only option, and for many of these, the for-profits are their the only option if their local public universities do not offer such programs in the discipline they want.

3. DE enrolments were down slightly in 2013

IPEDS shows an overall decrease in DE enrolments of 4% from 2012 to 2013. The biggest area was the for-profits, which declined by 17%. The drop in public universities for those taking fully online courses was a marginal 2%. However, this is a major difference from the trends identified by the Babson Surveys.

This is probably the most contentious of the conclusions, because the differences are relatively small and probably within the margin of error, given the unreliability of the data. The for-profit sector has been particularly badly hit by changes to federal financial aid for students.

However, I have been predicting that the rate of students taking fully online courses in the USA (and Canada) is likely to slow in the future for two reasons:

  • there is a limit to the market for fully online studies and after 10 years of fairly large gains, it is not surprising that the rate now appears to be slowing down
  • as more and more courses are offered in a hybrid mode, students have another option besides fully online for flexible study.

The counter trend is that public universities still have much more scope for increasing enrolments in fully online professional masters programs, as well as for certificates, diplomas and badges.

4. Students studying fully online are still more likely to opt for a local university

Just over half of all students enrolled exclusively in DE courses take their courses from within state. This figure jumps to between 75-90% for those enrolled in a public university. On the other hand, 70% of students enrolled in a DE course in a for-profit take their courses from out-of-state. This is not surprising, since although non-profits have to have their headquarters somewhere, they operate on a national basis.

The proportion of institutions reporting that they serve students who are outside the U.S. remains small, no more than 2% in any sector. This again may be a reporting anomaly, as 21% of institutions reported that they have students located outside the U.S. Probably of more concern is that many institutions did not report data on the location of their DE students. This may have something to do with the need for authorization for institutions to operate outside the home state, and this is a uniquely American can of worms that I don’t intend to open.

Not good, but it’s better than nothing

I have an uncomfortable feeling about the IPEDS data. It needs to be better, and it’s hard to draw any conclusions or make policy decisions on what we have seen so far.

However, it’s easy for someone outside the USA to criticise the IPEDS data, but at least it’s an attempt to measure what is an increasingly significant – and highly complex – area of higher education. We have nothing similar in Canada. At least the IPEDS data is likely to improve over time, as institutions press for clearer definitions, and are forced to collect better and more consistent data.

Also, I can’t praise too highly first of all Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman for their pioneering efforts to collect data in this area, and Phil Hill, Russell Poulin and Terri Straut for guiding us through the minefield of IPEDS data.

For a nice infographic on this topic from WCET, click on the image below:

WCET infographic 2

Mode of delivery: Learners as a determining factor

Listen with webReader
Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

This is the third of five posts on choosing between different modes of delivery as part of Chapter 10 for my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

As always, start with the learners

Fully online/distance learners

Research (see for instance Dabbagh, 2007) has repeatedly shown that fully online courses suit some types of student better than others: older, more mature students; students with already high levels of education; part-time students who are working or with families. This applies both to formal, credit based online courses and even more so to MOOCs (see Chapter 7) and other non-credit courses.

Today, ‘distance’ is more likely to be psychological or social, rather than geographical. For instance, from survey data regularly collected from students when I was Director of Distance Education and Technology at the University of British Columbia:

  • less than 20 per cent gave reasons related to distance or travel for taking an online course.
  • most of the 10,000 or so UBC students (there are over 60,000 students in total) taking at least one fully online course are not truly distant. The majority (over 80 per cent) live in the Greater Vancouver Metropolitan Area, within 90 minutes commute time to the university, and almost half within the relatively compact City of Vancouver. Comparatively few (less than 10 per cent) live outside the province (although this proportion is slowly growing each year.)
  • on the other hand, two thirds of UBC’s online students have paid work of one kind or another.
  • many undergraduate students in their fourth year take an online course because the face-to-face classes are ‘capped’ because of their large size, or because they are short of the required number of credits to complete a degree. Taking a course online allows these students to complete their program without having to come back for another year.
  • the main reason for most UBC students taking fully online courses is the flexibility they provide, given the work and family commitments of students and the difficulty caused by timetable conflicts for face-to-face classes.

This suggests that fully online courses are more suitable for more experienced students with a strong motivation to take such courses because of the impact they have on their quality of life. In general, online students need more self-discipline in studying and a greater motivation to study to succeed. This does not mean that other kinds of students can’t benefit from online learning, but extra effort needs to go into the design and support of such students online.

The research also suggests that these skills of independent learning need to be developed while students are on campus. In other words, online learning, in the form of blended learning, should be deliberately introduced and gradually increased as students work through a program, so by the time they graduate, they have the skills to continue to learn independently – a critical skill for the digital age. If courses are to be offered fully online in the early years of a university career, then they will need to be exceptionally well designed with a considerable amount of online learner support – and hence are likely to be expensive to mount, if they are to be successful.

On the other hand, fully online courses really suit working professionals. In a digital age, the knowledge base is continually expanding, jobs change rapidly, and hence there is strong demand for on-going, continuing education, often in ‘niche’ areas of knowledge. Online learning is a convenient and effective way of providing such lifelong learning. So far, apart from MBAs and teacher education, public universities have been slow in recognising the importance of this market, which at worse could be self-financing, and at best could bring in much needed additional revenues. The private, for-profit universities, though, such as the University of Phoenix, Laureate University and Capella University in the USA, have been quick to move into this market.

One other factor to consider is the impact of changing demographics. In jurisdictions where the school-age population is starting to decline, expanding into lifelong learning markets may be essential for maintaining student enrollments. Fully online learning may therefore turn out to be a way to keep some academic departments alive.

However, to make such lifelong learning online programs work, institutions need to make some important adjustments. In particular there must be incentives or rewards for faculty to move in this direction and there needs to be some strategic thinking about the best way to offer such programs. The University of British Columbia has developed a series of very successful, fully online, self-financing professional masters’ programs.  For example, students can initially try one or two courses in the Graduate Certificate in Rehabilitation before applying to the master’s program. The certificate can be completed in less than two years while working full-time, and paying per course rather than for a whole Master’s year, providing the flexibility needed by lifelong learners. UBC also partnered with Tec de Monterrey in Mexico, with the same program being offered in English by UBC and in Spanish by Tec de Monterrey, as a means of kick-starting its very successful Master in Educational Technology program, which over time has doubled the number of graduate students in UBC’s Faculty of Education. We shall see these examples are important when we examine the importance of modular programming in Chapter 11.

Online learning also offers the opportunity to offer programs where an institution has unique research expertise but insufficient local students to offer a full master’s program. By going fully online, perhaps in partnership with another university with similar expertise but in a different jurisdiction, it may be able to attract students from across the country or even internationally, enabling the research to be more widely disseminated and to build a cadre of professionals in newly emerging areas of knowledge – again an important goal in a digital age.

Blended learning learners

In terms of blended learning, the ‘market’ is less clearly defined than for fully online learning. The benefit for students is increased flexibility, but they will still need to be relatively local in order to attend the classroom-based sessions. The main advantage is for the 50 per cent or more of students, at least in North America, who are working more than 15 hours a week to help with the cost of their education and to keep their student debt as low as possible. Also, blended learning provides an opportunity for the gradual development of independent learning skills, as long as this is an intentional teaching strategy.

The main reason for moving to blended learning then is more likely to be academic, providing necessary hands-on experiences, offering an alternative to large lecture classes, and making student learning more active and accessible whenstudying online. This will benefit most students who can easily access a campus on a regular basis.

Face-to-face learners

Many students coming straight from high school will be looking for social, sporting and cultural opportunities that a campus-based education provides. Also students lacking self-confidence or experience in studying are likely to prefer face-to-face teaching, providing that they can access it in a relatively personal way.

However, the academic reasons are less clear, particularly if students are faced with very large classes and relatively little contact with professors in the first year or so of their programs. In this respect, smaller, regional institutions, which generally have smaller classes and more contact with instructors, have an advantage.

We shall see later in this chapter that blended and fully online learning offer the opportunity to re-think the whole campus experience so that better support is provided to on-campus learners in their early years in post-secondary education. More importantly, as more and more studying moves online, universities and colleges will be increasingly challenged to identify the unique pedagogical advantages of coming to campus, so that it will still be worthwhile to get on the bus to campus every morning.

We shall see that identifying the likely student market for a course or program is the strongest factor in deciding on mode of delivery.

Feedback

1. Given that students can do a lot of their studying online, what kind of students do you think will benefit most from face-to-face teaching? All students, if they can get to campus? If so, why?

2. Is there a particular kind of student who benefits more from a blended learning approach than from full time face-to-face teaching?

3. What do you think are the implications of widening the traditional ‘for credit’ market from high school leavers to lifelong learners? Do you agree that this would require some major changes in the way programs are offered? What would be the implication for Continuing Studies or Extension departments?

Next up

Seeking the unique characteristics of face-to-face teaching. This will look at how to identify what to do online and what to do on-campus in a blended learning course.

Reference

Dabbagh, N. (2007) The online learner: characteristics and pedagogical implications Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, Vol. 7, No.3

Ease of use as a criterion for technology selection in online learning

Listen with webReader
Image: © Daily Express, 2012

Reliability is important! Image: © Daily Express, 2012

I felt myself cringing as I wrote this section for my book on ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’. Talk about do what I say and not what I do, especially the part about spending a small amount of time in properly learning about a technology before using it. I was almost half way through writing this book, before I worked out that ‘Parts’ were in fact introductions to ‘Chapters’ and ‘Chapters’ really were sections of chapters, in Pressbook terminology. I also didn’t work out until this week how to actually publish it once it was available in html format.  Oh, that’s what this button is for!

However, ease of use is a critical criterion for media selection. Who wants to spend hours fiddling with the technology when teaching or learning, unless you’re a geek or a computer scientist? ‘Transparency’ is the key word. So here’s my contribution, under the letter ‘E’ in the SECTIONS model.

9.3 The SECTIONS Model: Ease of Use

In most cases, the use of technology in teaching is a means, not an end. Therefore it is important that students and teachers do not have to spend a great deal of time on learning how to use educational technologies, or on making the technologies work. The exceptions of course are where technology is the area of study, such as computer science or engineering, or where learning the use of software tools is critical for some aspects of the curriculum, for instance computer-aided design in architecture, spreadsheets in business studies, and geographical information systems in geology. In most cases, though, the aim of the study is not to learn how to use a particular piece of educational technology, but the study of history, mathematics, or biology.

Computer and information literacy

If a great deal of time has to be spent by the students and teachers in learning how to use for instance software for the development or delivery of course material, this distracts from the learning and teaching. Of course, there is a basic set of literacy skills that will be required, such as the ability to read and write, to use a keyboard, to use word processing software, to navigate the Internet and use Internet software, and increasingly to use mobile devices. These generic skills though could be considered pre-requisites. If students have not adequately developed these skills in school, then an institution might provide preparatory courses for students on these topics.

It will make life a lot easier for both teachers and students if an institution has strategies for supporting students’ use of digital media. For instance, at the University of British Columbia, the Digital Tattoo project prepares students for learning online in a number of ways:

  • introducing students to a range of technologies that could be used for their learning, such as learning management systems, open educational resources, MOOCs and e-portfolios
  • explaining what’s involved in studying online or at a distance
  • setting out the opportunities and risks of social media
  • advice on how to protect their privacy
  • advice on how to make the most of connecting, networking and online searching
  • how to prevent cyberbullying
  • maintaining a professional online presence.

If your institution does not have something similar, then you could direct your students to the Digital Tattoo site, which is fully open and available to anyone to use.

It is not only students though who may need prior preparation. Technology can be too seductive. You can start using it without fully understanding its structure or how it works. Even a short period of training – an hour or less – on how to use common technologies such as a learning management system or lecture capture could save you a lot of time and more importantly, enable you to see the potential value of all features and not just those that you stumble across.

Orientation

A useful standard or criterion for the selection of course media or software is that ‘novice’ students (i.e. students who have never used the software before) should be studying within 20 minutes of logging on. This 20 minutes may be needed to work out some of the key functions of the software that may be unfamiliar, or to work out how the course Web site is organized and navigated. This is more of an orientation period though than learning new skills of computing.

If we do need to introduce new software that may take a little time to learn, for instance, a synchronous ‘chat’ facility, or video streaming, it should be introduced at the point where it is needed. It is important though to provide time within the course for the students to learn how to do this.

Interface design

The critical factor in making technology transparent is the design of the interface between the user and the machine. Thus an educational program or indeed any Web site should be well structured, intuitive for the user to use, and easy to navigate.

Interface design is a highly skilled profession, and is based on a combination of scientific research into how humans learn, an understanding of how operating software works, and good training in graphic design. This is one reason why it is often wise to use software or tools that have been well established in education, because these have been tested and been found to work well.

The traditional generic interface of computers – a keyboard, mouse, and graphic user interface of windows and pull-down menus and pop-up instructions – is still extremely crude, and not isomorphic with most people’s preferences for processing information. It places very heavy emphasis on literacy skills and a preference for visual learning. This can cause major difficulties for students with certain disabilities, such as dyslexia or poor eyesight. However, in recent years, interfaces have started to become more user friendly, with touch screen and voice activated interfaces.

Nevertheless a great deal of effort often has to go into the adaptation of existing computer or mobile interfaces to make them easy to use in an educational context. The Web is just as much a prisoner of the general computer interface as any other software environment, and the educational potential of any Web site is also restricted by its algorithmic or tree-like structure. For instance, it does not always suit the inherent structure of some subject areas, or the preferred way of learning of some students.

There are several consequences of these interface limitations for teachers in higher education:

  • it is really important to choose teaching software or other technologies that are intuitively easy to use, both by the students in particular, but also for the teacher in creating materials and interacting with students;
  • when creating materials for teaching, the teacher needs to be aware of the issues concerning navigation of the materials and screen lay-out and graphics. While it is possible to add stimulating features such as audio and animated graphics, this comes at the cost of bandwidth. Such features should be added only where they serve a useful educational function, as slow delivery of materials is extremely frustrating for learners, who will normally have slower Internet access that the teacher creating the materials. Furthermore, web-based layout on desktop or laptop computers does not automatically transfer to the same dimensions or configurations on mobile devices, and mobile devices have a wide range of standards, depending on the device. Given that the design of Web-based materials requires a high level of specialized interface design skill, it is preferable to seek specialist help, especially if you want to use software or media that are not standard, institutionally supported tools. This is particularly important when thinking of using new mobile apps, for instance;
  • third, we can expect in the next few years some significant changes in the general computer interface with the development of speech recognition technology, adaptive responses based on artificial intelligence, and the use of haptics (e.g. hand-movement) to control devices. Changes in basic computer interface design could have as profound an impact on the use of technology in teaching as the Internet has.

Reliability

The reliability and robustness of the technology is also critical. Most of us will have had the frustration of losing work when our word programming software crashes or working ‘in the cloud’ and being logged off in the middle of a piece of writing. The last thing you want as a teacher or instructor is lots of calls from students saying they cannot get online access, or that their computer keeps crashing (if the software locks up one machine, it will probably lock up all the others!). Technical support can be a huge cost, not just in paying technical staff to deal with service calls, but also in lost time of students and teachers.

This means that you do not want to be at the ‘bleeding’ edge in your choice of technology, if it is to be used in any significant and regular form of teaching. It is best to wait for at least a year for new apps or software to be fully tested before adopting them. It is wise then not to rush in and buy the latest software up-date or new product – wait for the bugs to be ironed out.  Also if you plan to use a new app or technology that is not generally supported by the institution, check first with IT services to ensure there are not security, privacy or institutional bandwidth issues.

A feature of online learning is that peak use tends to fall outside normal office hours. Thus it is really important that your course materials sit on a reliable server with high-speed access and 24 hour, seven days a week reliability, with automatic back-up on a separate, independent server located in a different building. Ideally, the servers should be in a secure area (with for instance emergency electricity supply) with 24 hour technical support, which probably means locating your servers with central IT services. Increasingly online learning materials and courses are being located ‘in the cloud’, which means it is all the more important to ensure that materials are safely and independently backed up.

However, the good news is that most commercial educational software products such as learning management systems and lecture capture, as well as servers, are very reliable. Open source software too is usually reliable but probably slightly more at risk of technical failure or security breaches. If you have good IT support, you should receive very few calls from students on technical matters. The main technical issue that faculty face these days appears to be software up-grades to learning management systems. This often means moving course materials from one version of the software to the new version. This can be costly and time-consuming, particularly if the new version is substantially different from the previous version. Overall, though, reliability should not be an issue.

In summary, ease of use requires professionally designed commercial or open source course software, specialized help in graphics, navigation and screen design for your course materials, and strong technical support for server and software management and maintenance. Certainly in North America, most institutions now provide IT and other services focused specifically on supporting technology-based teaching. However, without such professional support, a great deal of your time as a teacher will be spent on technical issues, and to be blunt, if you do not have easy and convenient access to such support, you would be wise not to get heavily committed to technology-based teaching until that support is available.

Questions for consideration

Some of the questions then that you need to consider are:

  1. How intuitively easy to use is the technology you are considering, both by students and by yourself?
  1. How reliable is the technology?
  1. How easy is it to maintain and up-grade the technology?
  1. The company that is providing the critical hardware or software you are using: is it a stable company that is not likely to go out of business in the next year or two, or is it a new start-up? What strategies are in place to secure any digital teaching materials you create should the organisation providing the software or service cease to exist?
  1. Do you have adequate technical and professional support, both in terms of the technology and with respect to the design of materials?

Feedback

  1. I guess my main concern with this section is whether it is still needed these days. Most institutions, at least in Canadian post-secondary education, have moved in recent years to make sure there is professional IT support for technology for teaching as well as for communications and administration. Much of the newer technologies, such as apps, use relatively simple programming and hence tend to be much more reliable. Some advances have been made in interface design. Faculty themselves have become more tech savvy and learners of course have grown up using digital technologies. Does this all make ‘Ease of Use’ as a criterion redundant now? If not, is this section far too cautious? Should I be encouraging faculty to take more risks?
  2. Is the criterion that ‘novice’ students (i.e. students who have never used the software before) should be studying within 20 minutes of logging on a valid and useful criterion when selecting a platform for teaching and learning?
  3. I actually wrote ‘we can expect in the next few years some significant changes in the general computer interface with the development of speech recognition technology, adaptive responses based on artificial intelligence, and the use of haptics (e.g. hand-movement) to control devices‘ in 2003 (Bates and Poole, 2003). Here we are 11 years later. Will things still be the same in another 11 years time – or will real progress be made in the next few years in interface design? Is Siri the future?
  4. you do not want to be at the ‘bleeding’ edge in your choice of technology’. Do you agree?
  5. Any other comments? In particular do you have examples of good practice that could strengthen this section that I could use?

Up next

Cost as a criterion for media selection. This one will be fun.