July 23, 2014

A bill of rights for online learners?

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Morris, S.M. and Stommel, J. (2013) A Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age Hybrid Pedagogy, January 22

I’ve just caught up with this (work keeps getting in the way of blogging, damn it) so forgive me if you’ve already seen it. This statement has been developed by a group meeting in Palo Alto, California, and has some well-known names attached, such as John Seeley Brown, Audrey Watters and Sebastian Thrun.

It’s really in two parts, the first setting out a collection of rights for learners and the second a statement of principles for providers of online learning. You will need to read the full article to get a more detailed description of each, but here is a very brief listing:

Rights (of learners)

  • to access: ‘Everyone should have the right to learn.’
  • to privacy
  • to create public knowledge
  • to own one’s own personal data and intellectual property
  • to financial transparency
  • to pedagogical transparency
  • to quality and care
  • to have great teachers
  • to be teachers

Principles (to which online learning should aspire)

  • global contribution: ‘Online learning should originate from everywhere on the globe, not just from the U.S. and other technologically advantaged countries.’
  • value: ‘The function of learning is to allow students to equip themselves to address the challenges and requirements of life and work.’
  • flexibility: ‘Ideally, they [the best online programs] will also suggest and support new forms of interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary inquiry that are independent of old gatekeepers such as academic institutions or disciplines, certification agencies, time-to-degree measurements, etc.’
  • hybrid learning: ‘online learning should …. be connected back to multiple locations around the world and not tethered exclusively to the digital realm. ‘
  • persistence
  • innovation: ‘Online learning should be flexible, dynamic, and individualized rather than canned or standardized.
  • formative assessment
  • experimentation
  • civility
  • play


I have to admit being somewhat puzzled, not so much by the rights and principles themselves, but why it is thought necessary to codify and then publicize them.

First, would not most of these rights and principles be subscribed to already by most people that support public higher education, at least in North America, Europe and Australasia?  (I can’t speak for the Chinese or North Korean governments.)

If that’s the case (and it may be worth discussing this more), then the issue then is not the goals but the means to achieve the goals. Online learning is one, but in no way the only, means to some of these rights and principles. It is also true that while many working in or supporting public higher education would subscribe to these rights and principles, we often fall way short of implementing them, for a variety of reasons, such as lack of adequate resources or a poor choice of priorities. But that’s another discussion.

The question then comes to my mind as to why it has been necessary to spend time discussing and agreeing on principles and rights that most people in public education already accept.

One reason I suspect is a concern that developments in online learning outside formal, public education have the potential to run roughshod over these rights and principles. For instance, highly selective, campus-based, elite universities, at least until very recently, have not subscribed to some of these rights and principles, yet are now ‘discovering’ open learning through MOOCs, while still denying many of these rights to potential on-campus students.

Also, there is probably concern that MOOCs themselves are being exploited, at least by some organizations, for commercial reasons and this may result in some of these principles or rights being ignored or trampled on.

However, it could also be that some working in elite institutions have discovered God, and He is open, and so they need some commandments or a bible.

Thus having a statement of such rights and principles may be valuable, although how these rights or principles can be enforced is not at all clear to me – and what’s the use of a right if it can’t be protected?

Over to you

Do you think setting out these rights and principles is valuable?

Do you think public higher education generally subscribes to or adheres to these?

Why do you think such a statement has been made? Is it trying to say more than it does?

Don’t just tell me: join the conversation at https://twitter.com/search?q=%23learnersrights

See also: Kolowich, S. (2013)’Bill of Rights’ Seeks to Protect Students’ Interests as Online Learning Rapidly Expands Chronicle of Higher Education, January 23



IRRODL, Vol. 14, No. 1 now available

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IRRODL (International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning), Volume 14, Number 1 is now available, for free downloading as open educational resources.

This is a valuable pot-pourri of different topics, so it is not possible for me to do a review, but Terry Anderson provides an excellent editor’s summary of each of the articles.


Green curriculum: Sustainable learning in higher education HTML PDF MP3 EPUB
Willa Petronella Louw 1-15


A predictive study of student satisfaction in online education programs HTML PDF MP3 EPUB
Yu-Chun Kuo, Andrew E Walker, Brian R Belland, Kerstin E E Schroder 16-39


On-the-job e-learning: Workers’ attitudes and perceptions HTML PDF MP3 EPUB
Josep-Maria Batalla-Busquets, Carmen Pacheco-Bernal 40-64


An OER architecture framework: Need and design HTML PDF MP3 EPUB
Pankaj Khanna, P C Basak 65-83


Development of ODL in a newly industrialised country according to face-to-face contact, ICT, and e-readiness HTML PDF MP3 EPUB
J Marinda van Zyl, Christoffel Johannes Els, A Seugnet Blignaut 84-105


Employability in online higher education: A case study HTML PDF MP3 EPUB
Ana Paula Silva, Pedro Lourtie, Luisa Aires 106-125


Identifying barriers to the remix of translated open educational resources HTML PDF MP3 EPUB
Tel Amiel 126-144


Uses of published research: An exploratory case study HTML PDF MP3 EPUB
Patrick J. Fahy 145-166


A framework for developing competencies in open and distance e-learning HTML PDF MP3 EPUB
Patricia B Arinto 167-185


Peer Portal: Quality enhancement in thesis writing using self-managed peer review on a mass scale HTML PDF MP3 EPUB
Naghmeh Aghaee, Henrik Hansson 186-203


Learning in multiple communities from the perspective of knowledge capital HTML PDF MP3 EPUB
Hayriye Tugba Ozturk, Huseyin Ozcinar 204-221


A multimedia approach to ODL for agricultural training in Cambodia HTML PDF MP3 EPUB
Helena Grunfeld, Maria Lee Hoon Ng 222-238


Automatic evaluation for e-learning using latent semantic analysis: A use case HTML PDF MP3 EPUB
Mireia Farrús, Marta R. Costa-jussà 239-254

Field Notes

“Opening” a new kind of school: The story of the Open High School of Utah HTML PDF MP3 EPUB
DeLaina Tonks, Sarah Weston, David Wiley, Michael K. Barbour 255-271


This journal is possible only because of strong support from Athabasca University, which is undergoing some convulsive changes at the moment. If nothing else remains, I hope this journal survives, as it is an essential resource for those working in the field.




Who benefits from online learning?

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Di Xu & Shanna Smith Jaggars (2013) Adaptability to Online Learning: Differences Across Types of Students and Academic Subject Areas New York: Community College Research Center, Columbia University

The study

Using a dataset containing nearly 500,000 courses taken by over 40,000 community and technical college students in Washington State, this study examines how well students adapt to the online environment in terms of their ability to persist and earn strong grades in online courses relative to their ability to do so in face-to-face courses. 

The hypothesis

Some populations of students—for example, those with more extensive exposure to technology or those who have been taught skills in terms of time-management and self-directed learning—may adapt more readily to online learning than others. In addition, some academic subject areas may lend themselves to highquality online learning experiences more readily than others

The methodology

Primary analyses were performed on a dataset containing 51,017 degree-seeking students who initially enrolled in one of Washington State’s 34 community or technical colleges during the fall term of 2004. These first-time college students were tracked through the spring of 2009 for 19 quarters of enrollment, or approximately five years.  The dataset, provided by the Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC), included information on student demographics, institutions attended, and transcript data on course enrollments and performance.

The results

  • In descriptive terms, students’ average persistence rate across courses was 94.12 percent, with a noticeable gap between online courses (91.19 percent) and face-to-face courses (94.45 percent). For courses in which students persisted through to the end of the term (N = 469,287), the average grade was 2.95 (on a 4.0-point scale), also with a gap between online courses (2.77) and face-to-face courses (2.98).
  • While all types of students in the study suffered decrements in performance in online courses, some struggled more than others to adapt: males, younger students, Black students, and students with lower grade point averages. 
  • Regardless of a particular student’s own adaptability to the online environment, her performance in an online course may suffer if her classmates adapt poorly. English and social science were two academic subjects that seemed to attract a high proportion of less-adaptable students, thereby introducing negative peer effects.
  • Older students adapted more readily to online courses than did younger students.
  • [Also] students who were more disposed to take online course also tended to have stronger overall academic performance than their peers  



First, it is encouraging to see a detailed quantitative assessment of the types of students taking online courses, and their relative performance. This report needs to be read in full, and carefully. It is good that it is based on a significantly large enough sample that one can have confidence in the generalizability of the results (at least in the U.S. two-year college sector). The study was very well carried out and is a model for quantitative analysis of student differences.

Furthermore, I am not surprised or even concerned about these findings. For instance, from my own experience of online teaching, I would agree that ‘students are not homogeneous in their adaptability to the online delivery format and may therefore have substantially different outcomes for online learning.’ Online learning doesn’t suit everyone, and it is valuable to have some research that helps identify the more ‘at-risk’ online learners.

One can put forward a number of reasons why online students, on average, are likely to struggle compared with face-to-face students. Students who choose an online course are likely on average to have less time for study that those attending regularly on campus. Second, for many online students, the mode of study will be unfamiliar, which means making more adaptation to a different way of learning.

My one quibble is that, although the results are clearly significant statistically (as is almost inevitable in large samples), the differences are quite small (96% vs 91% completion rates, for instance.) Thus I do challenge the authors’ conclusion that ‘most students had difficulty adapting to the online context.’ If 91% complete the course, then most students did not have difficulties sufficient to deter them from completing successfully their courses. That seems a pretty good adaptation level to me.

I also have a concern that these results will be misinterpreted. This should not mean that men, Blacks and young people should be discouraged from taking online courses, but that we should be taking more care to ensure that students who do take online courses are better prepared, with particular attention being paid to those likely to be at most risk. This may mean, for instance, gradually introducing students to online learning in a deliberate way throughout a program. This study does suggest those most likely to be at risk.

Further reading

Lederman, D. (2013) Who benefits from online Ed? Inside Higher Education, February 25


No. 1 aha moment: media are different

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© Open University 2013

In a previous post, I listed the seven ‘aha’ moments that have been the most seminal ‘discoveries’ in my researching and working in educational technology. This is the first of seven posts that discusses why I believe these ‘discoveries’ to be important, and their implications specifically for online learning.

What was the discovery?

Different media have different educational effects or affordances. If you just transfer the same teaching to a different mediium, you fail to exploit the unique characteristics of that medium. Put more positively, you can do different and often better teaching by adapting it to the medium. That way students will learn more deeply and effectively.

How did this discovery come about?

Aha moments do not come out of thin air. A number of things come together until something in particular triggers it.

The first one, media are different, came very early, within 12 months of starting my career as a researcher into educational technologies. In 1969, I was appointed as a research officer at the Open University in the United Kingdom. At this point the university had just received its royal charter. I was the 20th member of staff appointed. My job was simple: to research into the pilot of the OU being currently offered by the National Extension College, which was offering low cost non-credit distance education programs in partnership with the BBC. ( So you think MOOCs are new?! The NEC was offering them over 40 years ago).

We sent out by mail questionnaires on a weekly basis to students taking these courses. The questionnaire contained both pre-coded responses, and the opportunity for open-ended comments, and asked students for their responses to the print and broadcast components of the courses. We were looking for what worked and what didn’t work in designing multimedia distance education courses.

When I started analyzing the questionnaires, I was struck particularly by the ‘open-ended’ comments in response to the television and radio broadcasts. Responses to the printed components tended to be ‘cool’: rational, calm, critical, constructive. The responses to the broadcasts were the opposite: emotional, strongly supportive or strongly critical or even hostile, and rarely critically constructive. Something was going on here.

Since the OU was going to spend 20% of ita annual budget on the broadcasts from the BBC, I persuaded the university to appoint me as a lecturer to research into the effectiveness of the television and radio programs, which I did for a period of nearly 20 years.

The initial discovery that media were different came very quickly, but it took longer to discover in what ways media are different, and even longer why. I have written more extensively about this elsewhere, but here are some of the interesting discoveries I and my colleagues in the Audio-Visual Media Research Group at the OU made:

  • the BBC producers (all of whom had a degree in the subject area in which they were making programs) thought about knowledge differently from the academics with whom they were working. In particular, they tended to think more visually and more concretely about the subject matter. Thus they tended to make programs that showed concrete examples of concepts or principles in the texts, applications of principles, or how academic concepts worked in real life.
  • the BBC producers rarely used talking heads or TV lectures. With radio and later audio-cassettes, some producers and academics integrated the audio with texts, for instance in mathematics, talking students through equations or formulae in the printed text (similar to Khan Academy lectures on TV)
  • students responded very differently to the TV programs in particular. Some loved them, some hated them, and few were indifferent. The ones that hated them wanted the programs to be didactic and repeat  or reinforce what was in the printed texts. They tended to get lower grades or even fail in the final course exam. The ones that loved them tende to get higher grades. They were able to see how the programs illustrated the principles in the texts, and the programs tended to ‘stretch’ students to think more widely or critically about the topics in the course. The exception was math, where borderline students found the TV programs most helpful
  • using television and radio to develop higher level learning is a skill that can be taught. In the foundation social science course (D100), many of the programs were made in a typical BBC documentary style. Although the programs were accompanied by extensive broadcast notes that attempted to link the broadcasts to the academic texts, many students struggled with these programs. When the course was remade five years later a distinguished academic (Stuart Hall) was used as an ‘anchor’ for all the programs. The first few programs were somewhat like lectures, but in each program Stuart Hall introduced more and more visual clips and helped students analyze each clip . By the end of the course the programs were almost entirely in the documentary format. Students rated the remade program much higher and used examples from the TV programs much more in their assignments and exams for the remade course.

Why are these findings significant?

At the time (and for many years afterwards) researchers such as Richard Clark (1983) argued that the research showed no significant different between the use of different media. In particular, there were no differences between classroom teaching and other media such as television or radio or satellite or the Internet. Even today, we are getting similar findings regarding online learning (e.g. Means et al. 2010)

However, this is because  the research methodology that is used by researchers for such comparative studies requires the two conditions being compared to be the same, except for the medium being used. Therefore a classroom lecture had to be compared to a television lecture. Indeed Clark argued that any differences were due to pedagogical differences in the media use. Since the classroom was used as the base, you had to strip out all the affordances of television – what it could do better than a lecture – in order to compare it.

The critical point is that different media can be used to assist learners to learn in different ways and achieve different outcomes. In a sense, researchers such as Clark were right: the teaching methods matter, but different media can more easily support different ways of teaching than others.

Perhaps even more important is the idea that many media are better than one. This allows learners with different preferences for learning to be accommodated, and to allow subject matter to be taught in different ways through different media, thus leading to deeper understanding or a wider range of skills in using content.

How does this apply to online learning?

Online learning can incorporate a range of different media: text, graphics, audio, video, animation, simulations. We need to understand better their affordances, and use them differentially so as to develop deeper knowledge, and a wider range of learning outcomes and skills.

The use of different media also allows for more individualization and personalization of the learning, better suiting learners with different learning styles and needs.

Most of all, we should stop trying merely to move classroom teaching to other media such as MOOCs, and start designing online learning so its full potential can be exploited.

References and further reading

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

Bates, A. (2012) Pedagogical roles for video in online learning, Online Learning and Distance Education Resources

Clark, R. (1983) ‘Reconsidering research on learning from media’ Review of Educational Research, Vol. 53, pp. 445-459

Kozma, R. (1994) ‘Will Media Influence Learning? Reframing the Debate’, Educational Technology Research and Development, Vol. 42, No. 2, pp. 7-19

Means, B. et al. (2009) Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies Washington, DC: US Department of Education (http://www.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalreport.pdf)

Russell, T. L. (1999) The No Significant Difference Phenomenon Raleigh, NC: North Carolina State University, Office of Instructional Telecommunication

Measuring the growth of online learning: the Babson College 2012 survey

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©2013 by Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group, LLC

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

Based on responses from more than 2,800 colleges and universities, this year’s study, like those for the previous nine years, tracks the opinions of chief academic officers. The figures refer to fully online courses, i.e. courses where over 80% of the content is delivered online. Most of you will have seen at least the headlines about this report, but it is so significant that I am providing a detailed analysis.

Main findings:

Online course enrollments

  • The number of students taking at least one online course increased by over 570,000 to a new total of 6.7 million.
  • The online enrollment growth rate of 9.3 percent is the lowest recorded in this report series (but higher than enrollment growth overall, which dropped to below zero in 2011-2012.)
  • The proportion of all students taking at least one online course is at an all time high of 32.0 percent
  • The continued growth in online enrollments has come from the transition of institutions with only a few online courses moving to offer fully online programs, and from institutions with online programs expanding their offerings and building their enrollments.

©2013 by Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group, LLC

Learning outcomes

  • In the first report of this series in 2003, 57 percent of academic leaders rated the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face.  That number is now 77 percent.
  • A minority (23%) of academic leaders continue to believe the learning outcomes for online education are inferior to those of face-to-face instruction.
  • Academic leaders at institutions with online offerings have a much more favorable opinion of the relative learning outcomes for online courses than do those at institutions with no online offerings.

Faculty acceptance 

  • Only 30 percent of chief academic officers believe their faculty accept the value and legitimacy of online education.  This rate is lower than the rate recorded in 2004.
  • Chief academic officers at institutions with fully online programs have the most positive view of their faculty acceptance, but even for them the proportion agreeing is less than a majority (38 percent).

Time to teach online

  • The percent of academic leaders that believe it takes more faculty time and effort to teach online has increased from 41 percent in 2006 to 45 percent this year.
  • Private for-profit institutions are the lone group whose level of agreement has dropped (from 32 percent in 2006 to 24 percent in 2012).

Who offers online programs?

  • Virtually all publicly funded institutions (90%+) had online courses even in 2002.  One big change for these schools is the big gain in the proportion whose online offerings now include complete online programs (49% in 2002 and 71% in 2012).
  • The number of private nonprofit institutions with online offerings increased from 22% in 2002 to 48% in 2012.


  • Only 2.6 percent of higher education institutions currently have a MOOC, another 9.4 percent report MOOCs are in the planning stages.
  • The majority of institutions (55%) report they are still undecided about MOOCs, while one-third (33%) say they have no plans for a MOOC.
  • Academic leaders remain unconvinced that MOOCs represent a sustainable method for offering online courses, but do believe they provide an important means for institutions to learn about online pedagogy.
  • Academic leaders are not concerned about MOOC instruction being accepted in the workplace, but do have concerns that credentials for MOOC completion will cause confusion about higher education degrees.
Online learning as strategic to institution’s plans
  • The proportion of chief academic leaders that say online learning is critical to their long-term strategy is now at 69 percent – the highest it has been for this ten-year period.
  • Likewise, the proportion of institutions reporting online education is not critical to their long-term strategy has dropped to a new low of 11 percent.
  • A total of 2,820 responses were included in the analysis, representing 62 percent of the sample universe (all active degree-granting institutions in the USA).  Because non-responding institutions are predominately those with the smallest enrollments, the institutions included in the analysis represents 83 percent of  higher education enrollments.

1. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman have provided a unique and invaluable service for the last ten years. Initially supported by the Sloan-C foundation for the first nine years and now supported by Pearson, this survey has provided the only comprehensive analysis of the growth of online learning in the USA. Its particular value is the consistency of methodology which allows for valid comparisons from year to year.

2. The results themselves this year are somewhat surprising. Almost one third of students in the USA are now taking at least one online course. Although growth is slowing somewhat, online enrollments are still outpacing the overall college enrollments in the USA. Nearly 70% of chief academic officers see online learning as strategic to their future plans.

3. I was surprised to note that even as early as 2002, over 90% of state-funded universities claimed to have at least some online courses. The private nonprofit (i.e. most of the elite universities) have been much slower moving in this direction with still less than half offering for credit programs.

4. The data clearly shows the over-reporting in the main media of MOOCs. Only 12% of institutions are offering or considering to offer MOOCs and as we have seen elsewhere, these are mainly the elite institutions who to date have been slow to recognize or accept the value of for-credit online programming. It is a pity less media attention has been focused on the 6.7 million online enrollments that have built slowly but steadily over the last 10 years. But then these weren’t at  Stanford, MIT or Harvard.

5. The report has some interesting observations on the time factor in teaching online. The report states:

Before the advent of MOOCs, the prototypical online course in U.S.higher education over the past decade has not been structured to provide large increases in efficiency.  Most online courses are very similar in design to existing face-to-face courses.  These courses typically run on the same semester schedule, cover the same corpus of material, represent the same number of credit hours, and are led by a single faculty member who is directly interacting with his or her students…..One result of building online courses that mirror the existing face-to-face framework has been they place additional demands on the faculty that teach them….. The most recent results show 44.6 percent of chief academic officers now report this to be the case, with only 9.7 percent disagreeing. However, the percent of academic leaders at for-profit institutions agreeing it takes more time and effort to teach online courses had dropped from 31.6 percent in 2006 to only 24.2 percent for 2012.

This suggests that the for-profits such as Phoenix and Kaplan have been more successful in scaling up online programs. There are several ways online learning could be done more cost-effectively in public institutions, from greater use of open educational resources, especially open textbooks, flexible instructional design, more planning, teamwork and design at a programming rather than a course level, greater sharing of materials and more inter-institutional collaboration and partnerships, especially for core undergraduate programs and specialized masters programs. Now that institutions are seeing online learning as of strategic importance, I hope we will see more concerted efforts at improving the cost-effectiveness of online learning.

6. I have just one caveat with all the surveys in this series. I have a concern that they may be unintentionally over-indicating the volume of online learning. Just two straws in the wind: in 2010, the government of Ontario in Canada did a comprehensive census (i.e. all institutions) and found that 13% of all course enrollments were in online courses, which is less than half the Babson figure. At the time, I thought this might be an indication that Canada was slower than the US in developing online learning. However, earlier this week, Dr. Andreea Serban, interim vice chancellor of education services at Coast Community College District, reported that in the California community college network, the number of online enrollments equalled 11% of full time equivalents – FTEs (identical to the figure for the Ontario two-year college system). One reason for the differences may be due to the way data are reported. The Babson survey reports on the number of students taking at least one online course (32% of all students). The Ontario survey required institutions to provide a detailed breakdown of their course enrollments from their registration data, and calculated this as a proportion of FTE enrollments, and I’m guessing that is how the California figures were also arrived at. The reason for the discrepancy is that students are probably taking fewer online than face-to-face courses, thus the FTE proportion is lower. However, I would argue that the proportion of students taking online courses in terms of FTEs  is the better ‘true’ measurement of the impact of online learning.

Despite the caveat, what is more important than the actual numbers is the trend, and on this the Babson survey is extremely consistent. We are seeing some indication that the rate of growth of for-credit online learning is beginning to slow (at one time there were annual increases of over 20%), and I suspect that the move to hybrid learning is likely to slow down further the growth of enrollments in fully online courses (although increasing the total number of students studying at least partly online). Allen and Seaman in fact also collected data on blended/hybrid learning in this year’s survey and I hope they will publish this data as well.

Lastly, despite (or perhaps because of) this detailed analysis of the results, I strongly recommend you go to the original report, which contains a great deal more than I’ve reported here, is clearly written and is well worth reading in full.