June 29, 2016

Advice to students about Athabasca University

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Students as a criterion for media selection in online learning

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The Malaysian Ministry of Education announced that it will enable students to bring handphones to schools under strict guidelines Image: © NewStraightsTimes, 2015

The Malaysian Ministry of Education announced in 2012 that it will enable students to bring handphones to schools under strict guidelines
Image: © NewStraightsTimes, 2012

Decisions are being made every day by government, institutions, teachers and students about technology use in education. How are these decisions made? What criteria are used?

In my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, I am suggesting using the SECTIONS model for media selection based on an examination of the following criteria:

  • tudents
  • E ase of use
  • osts
  • eaching functions
  • I nteraction
  • rganisational issues and Open-ness
  • etworking and Novelty
  • peed and Security.

Here is my first draft on questions about students and their needs:

At least three issues related to students need to be considered when choosing media and technology:

  • student demographics;
  • access; and
  • differences in how students learn.

Student demographics

One of the fundamental changes resulting from mass higher education is that university and college teachers must now teach an increasingly diverse range of students. This increasing diversity of students presents major challenges for post-secondary teachers. It requires that courses should be developed with a wide variety of approaches and ways to learn if all students in the course are to be taught well.

In particular, it is important to be clear about the needs of the target group. First and second year students straight from high school are likely to require more support and help studying at a university or college level. They are likely to be less independent as learners, and therefore it may be dangerous to expect them to be able to study entirely through the use of technology. However, technology may be useful as a support for classroom teaching, especially if it provides an alternative approach to learning from the face-to-face teaching, and is gradually introduced, to prepare them for more independent study later in a program.

On the other hand, for students who have already been through higher education as a campus student, but are now in the workforce, a program delivered entirely by technology at a distance is likely to be attractive. Such students will have already developed successful study skills, will have their own community and family life, and will welcome the flexibility of studying this way.

Third and fourth year undergraduate students may appreciate a mix of classroom-based and online study or even one or two fully online courses, especially if some of their face-to-face classes are closed to further enrolments, or if students are working part-time to help cover some of the costs of being at college.

Lastly, within any single class or group of learners, there will be a wide range of differences in prior knowledge, language skills, and preferred study styles. The intelligent use of media and technology can help accommodate these differences. This will be discussed further below (Section 9.2.3).

Access

Of all the criteria in determining choice of technology, this is perhaps the most discriminating. No matter how powerful in educational terms a particular medium or technology may be, if students cannot access it in a convenient and affordable manner they cannot learn from it. Thus you may believe that video streaming is the best way to get your great lectures to students off campus, but if they do not have Internet access at home, or if it takes four hours to download, then forget it. (This is a particular weakness in the argument for using xMOOCs in developing countries. Even if potential learners have Internet or mobile phone access, which 5 billion still don’t, it often costs a day’s wages to download a single YouTube video – see Marron, Missen and Greenberg, 2014).

If you are intending to use computers, tablets or mobile phones for students, then you need answers to a number of questions.

  • What is your or your department’s policy with regard to students’ access to a computer, tablets or mobile phones?
  • Can they use any device or is there a limited list of devices that the institution will support?
  • Is the medium or software you are using compatible with all makes of mobile phones?
  • Is the network adequate to support any extra students your class might add?
  • Who else in the institution needs to know that you are requiring students to use particular devices?

If students are expected to provide their own devices (which increasingly makes sense),

  • what kind of device do they need: one at home with Internet access or a portable that they can bring on to campus – or one that can be used both at home and on campus?
  • What kind of applications will they need to run on their device(s) for study purposes?
  • Will they be able to use the same device(s) across all courses, or will they need different software/apps and devices for different courses?
  • What software skills will students need?
  • Will they need to know how to use a particular software before taking a course, or will they be taught this during the course?

Students (as well as the instructor) need to know the answers to these questions before they enrol in a course or program. In order to answer these questions, you and your department must know what students will use their devices for. There is no point in requiring students to go to the expense of purchasing a laptop computer if the work they are required to do on it is optional or trivial. This means some advance planning on your part.

  • What are the educational advantages that you see in student use of a particular device?
  • What will students need to do on the device in your course?
  • Is it really essential for them to use a device in these ways, or could they easily manage without the device?
  • What technology skills will they need, and will most students have these skills?
  • If students do not have the skills, would it still be worth their learning them, and will there be time set aside in the course for them to learn these skills?

It will really help if your institution has good policies in place for student technology access (see Section 9.7 below). If the institution doesn’t have clear policies or infrastructure for supporting the technologies you want to use, then your job is going to be a lot harder.

The answer to the question of access and the choice of technology will also depend somewhat on the mandate of the institution and your personal educational goals. For instance, highly selective universities can require students to use particular devices, and can help the relatively few students who have financial difficulties in purchasing and using specified devices. If though the mandate of the institution is to reach learners denied access to conventional institutions, equity groups, the unemployed, the working poor, or workers needing up-grading or more advanced education and training, then it becomes critical to find out what technology they have access to or are willing to use.

For instance, the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal conducted a study on how best to improve the communication of health information and education for ‘hard to reach’ patients. These were defined as patients or clients with low levels of literacy, those who face language and cultural barriers, and those who have difficulties processing information because of physical or cognitive disabilities. The study found that most of these patients do not, and do not want to, use computers, even though many Canadian hospitals and health care centers are increasingly relying on computer-mediated information systems for patients (Centre for Literacy, 2001). If an institution’s policy is open access to anyone who wants to take its courses, the availability of equipment already in the home (usually purchased for entertainment purposes) becomes of paramount importance.

If students do not already have personal access to specific technologies, alternatives are to provide the necessary equipment on campus, or through access at local community centres or the workplace. However, the use of local centres may limit another important factor with regard to access, and that is flexibility. If students have to travel to a local centre, or if the centre is open only at certain times, then this will reduce flexibility and increase the barriers to learning. Also, costs can escalate rapidly if the institution has to provide hardware and software for students.

Another important factor to consider is access for student with disabilities. This may mean providing textual or audio options for deaf and visually impaired students respectively. Fortunately there are now well established practices and standards under the general heading of Universal Design standards. Universal Design is defined as follows:

Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, refers to the deliberate design of instruction to meet the needs of a diverse mix of learners. Universally designed courses attempt to meet all learners’ needs by incorporating multiple means of imparting information and flexible methods of assessing learning. UDL also includes multiple means of engaging or tapping into learners’ interests. Universally designed courses are not designed with any one particular group of students with a disability in mind, but rather are designed to address the learning needs of a wide-ranging group.

Brokop, F. (2008)

Most institutions with a centre for supporting teaching and learning will be able to provide assistance to faculty to ensure the course meets universal design standards.  A good guide is available here.

Student differences with respect to learning with technologies

It may seem obvious that different students will have different preferences for different kinds of technology or media. The design of teaching would cater for these differences. Thus if students are ‘visual’ learners, they would be provided with diagrams and illustrations. If they are auditory learners, they will prefer lectures and podcasts. It might appear then that identifying dominant learning styles should then provide strong criteria for media and technology selection. However, it is not as simple as that.

McLoughlin (1999), in a thoughtful review of the implications of the research literature on learning styles for the design of instructional material, concluded that instruction could be designed to accommodate differences in both cognitive-perceptual learning styles and Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning cycle. In a study of new intakes conducted over several years at the University of Missouri-Columbia, using the Myers-Briggs inventory, Schroeder (1993) found that new students think concretely, and are uncomfortable with abstract ideas and ambiguity.

However, a major function of a university education is to develop skills of abstract thinking, and to help students deal with complexity and uncertainty. Perry (1984) found that learning in higher education is a developmental process. It is not surprising then that many students enter college or university without such ‘academic’ skills. Indeed, there are major problems in trying to apply learning styles and other methods of classifying learner differences to media and technology selection and use. Laurillard (2001) makes the point that looking at learning styles in the abstract is not helpful. Learning has to be looked at in context. Thinking skills in one subject area do not necessarily transfer well to another subject area. There are ways of thinking that are specific to different subject areas. Thus logical-rational thinkers in science do not necessarily make thoughtful husbands, or good literary critics.

Part of a university education is to understand and possibly challenge predominant modes of thinking in a subject area. While learner-centered teaching is important, students need to understand the inherent logic, standards, and values of a subject area. They also need to be challenged, and encouraged to think outside the box. This may clash with their preferred learning style. Indeed, the research on the effectiveness of matching instructional method to learning styles is at best equivocal. For instance, Dziuban et al. (2000), at the University of Central Florida, applied Long’s reactive behavior analysis of learning styles to students in both face-to-face classes and Web-based online classes. They found that learning style does not appear to be a predictor of who withdraws from online courses, nor were independent learners likely to do better online than other kinds of learners.

The limitations of learning styles as a guide to designing courses does not mean we should ignore student differences, and we should certainly start from where the student is. In particular, at a university level we need strategies to gradually move students from concrete learning based on personal experience to abstract, reflective learning that can then be applied to new contexts and situations. We shall see in Section 9.5 that technology can be particularly helpful for that.

Thus when designing courses, it is important to offer a range of options for student learning within the same course. One way to do this is to make sure that a course is well structured, with relevant ‘core’ information easily available to all students, but also to make sure that there are opportunities for students to seek out new or different content. This content should be available in a variety of media such as text, diagrams, and video, with concrete examples explicitly related to underlying principles. We shall see in Chapter 10 that the increasing availability of open educational resources makes the provision of this ‘richness’ of possible content much more viable.

Similarly, technology enables a range of learner activities to be made available, such as researching readings on the Web, online discussion forums, synchronous presentations, assessment through e-portfolios, and online group work. The range of activities increases the likelihood that a variety of learner preferences are being met, and also encourages learners to involve themselves in activities and approaches to learning where they may initially feel less comfortable. Such approaches to design are more likely to be effective than courses in multiple versions developed to meet different learning styles. In any case developing multiple versions of courses for different styles of learner is likely to be impractical in most cases. So avoid trying to match different media to different learning styles but instead ensure that students have a wide range of media (text, audio, video, computing) within a course or program.

Lastly, one should be careful in the assumptions made about student preferences for learning through digital technologies. On the one hand, technology ‘boosters’ such as Mark Prensky and Don Tapscott argue that today’s ‘digital natives’ are different from previous generations of students. They argue that todays students live within a networked digital universe and therefore expect their learning also to be all digitally networked. It is also true that professors in particular tend to underestimate students’ access to advanced technologies (professors are often late adopters of new technology), so you should always try to find up-to-date information on what devices and technologies students are currently using, if you can.

On the other hand, it is also dangerous to assume that all students are highly ‘digital literate’ and are demanding that new technologies should be used in teaching. Jones and Shao (2011) conducted a thorough review of the literature on ‘digital natives’, with over 200 appropriate references, including surveys of relevant publications from countries in Europe, Asia, North America, Australia and South Africa. They concluded that:

  • students vary widely in their use and knowledge of digital media
  • the gap between students and their teachers in terms of digital literacy is not fixed, nor is the gulf so large that it cannot be bridged
  • there is little evidence that students enter university with demands for new technologies that teachers and universities cannot meet;
  • students will respond positively to changes in teaching and learning strategies that include the use of new technologies that are well conceived, well explained and properly embedded in courses and degree programmes. However there is no evidence of a pent-up demand amongst students for changes in pedagogy or of a demand for greater collaboration;
  • the development of university infrastructure, technology policies and teaching objectives should be choices about the kinds of provision that the university wishes to make and not a response to general statements about what a new generation of students are demanding;
  • the evidence indicates that young students do not form a generational cohort and they do not express consistent or generationally organised demands.

Graduating students that have been interviewed about learning technologies at the University of British Columbia made it clear that they will be happy to use technology for learning so long as it contributes to their success (in the words of one student, ‘if it will get me better grades’) but the students also made it clear that it was the instructor’s responsibility to decide what technology was best for their studies.

It is also important to pay attention to what Jones and Shao are not saying. They are not saying that social media, personal learning environments, or collaborative learning are inappropriate, nor that the needs of students and the workforce are unchanging or unimportant, but the use of these tools or approaches should be driven by a holistic look at the needs of all students, the needs of the subject area, and the learning goals relevant to a digital age, and not by an erroneous view of what a particular generation of students are demanding.

In summary, one great advantage of the intelligent application of technology to teaching is that it provides opportunities for students to learn in a variety of ways, thus adapting the teaching more easily to student differences. Thus, the first step in media selection is to know your students, their similarities and differences, what technologies they already have access to, and what digital skills they already possess or lack that may be relevant for your courses. This is likely to require the use of a wide range of media within the teaching.

References

Brokop, F. (2008) Accessibility to E-Learning for Persons With Disabilities: Strategies, Guidelines, and Standards Edmonton AB: NorQuest College/eCampus Alberta

Centre for Literacy of Québec (2001) Needs assessment of the health education and information needs of hard-to-reach patients Montréal: Centre for Literacy of Québec

Dziuban, C. et al. (2000) Reactive behavior patterns go online  The Journal of Staff, Program and Organizational Development, Vol. 17, No.3

Jones, C. and Shao, B. (2011) The Net Generation and Digital Natives: Implications for Higher Education Milton Keynes: Open University/Higher Education Academy

Kolb. D. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall

Laurillard, D. (2001) Rethinking University Teaching: A Conversational Framework for the Effective Use of Learning Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Marron, D. Missen, C. and Greenberg, J. (2014) “Lo-Fi to Hi-Fi”: A New Way of Conceptualizing Metadata in Underserved Areas with the eGranary Digital Library Austin TX: International Conference on Dublin Core and Metadata Applications

McCoughlin, C. (1999) The implictions of the research literature on learning styles for the design of instructional material Australian Journal of Educational Technology, Vol. 15, No. 3

Perry, W. (1970) Forms of intellectual development and ethical development in the college years: a scheme New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston

Prensky, M. (2001) ‘Digital natives, Digital Immigrants’ On the Horizon Vol. 9, No. 5

Schroeder, C. (1993) New students – new learning styles, Change, Sept.-Oct

Feedback

As always, feedback will be much appreciated. In particular:

  1. It seems obvious that students should be the first consideration in any educational decision. However, apart from student access to technology, student differences do not seem to me to be a very strong determinant of media choice, because there is so much variability in their needs. Do you agree?
  2. Linked to this, where do you stand on learning styles and media selection? You see I have been cautious about this and have fallen back on a general statement of ensuring a wide mix of media within a course. What are your views on this?
  3. One of the great benefits of the Internet is that it enables/includes nearly all media (text, audio, video, computing) – so do we really need a decision model? If we do, why?
  4. Any other comments, suggestions about appropriate graphics or video to illustrate this section, or examples of how you make decisions about choice of media, will be welcomed.

Next

Ease of use and costs as criteria.