February 27, 2017

Tracking innovations in online learning in Canada

Rue St Jean, Québec City. Temperatures ranged from -17 C to -23 C -without wind chill added

I’ve not been blogging much recently because, frankly, I’ve been too busy, and not on the golf course or ski slopes, either. (Yeah, so what happened to my retirement? Failed again).

Assessing the state of online learning in Canada

I am working on two projects at the moment:

These two projects in fact complement one another nicely, with the first aiming to provide a broad and accurate picture of the extent of online learning in Canada, and the other focusing on the more qualitative aspects of innovation in online learning, and all in time for not only for the 150th anniversary of Confederation in Canada (which was really the creation of a new, independent state in North America) but also ICDE’s World Congress on Online Learning in Toronto in October, whose theme is, guess what, Teaching in a Digital Age (now there’s a co-incidence).

Of course, I’m not doing this on my own. In both projects I am working with a great group of people.

Methodology

My mandate for Contact North is to identify 8-12 cases of innovation in online learning from all of Canada other than Ontario. I started of course in British Columbia, early in January, and last week I visited six post-secondary institutions in four cities in Québec.

To find the cases, I have gone to faculty development workshops where instructors showcase their innovations, or I have contacted instructional designers I know in different institutions to recommend cases. The institutions are chosen to reflect provinces, and universities and colleges within each province.

Each visit involves an interview with the instructor responsible for the innovation, and where possible a demonstration or examples of the innovation. (One great thing about online learning is that it leaves a clear footprint that can be captured).

I then write up a short report, using a set of headings provided by Contact North, and then return that to the instructor to ensure that it is accurate. I then submit the case report to Contact North.

I am not sure whether Contact North will publish all the cases I report on its web site, as I will certainly cover much more than 8-12 cases in the course of this project. However, it is hoped that at least some of the instructors featured will showcase their innovations at the World Congress of Online Learning.

Progress to date

I have conducted interviews (but not finished the reports yet) for the following:

British Columbia

  • the use of an online dialectical map to develop argumentation skills in undergraduate science students (Simon Fraser University – SFU)
  • peer evaluation as a learning and assessment strategy for building teamwork skills in business school programs (SFU)
  • the development of a mobile app for teaching the analysis of soil samples (University of British Columbia)
  • PRAXIS: software to enable real-time, team-based decision-making skills through simulations of real-world emergency situations (Justice Institute of British Columbia)

Québec

  • comodal synchronous teaching, enabling students to choose between attending a live lecture or participating at the same time from home/at a distance (Laval University)
  • synchronous online teaching of the use of learning technologies in a teacher education program (Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières – UQTR)
  • achieving high completion rates in a MOOC on the importance of children’s play (UQTR)
  • a blended course on effective face-to-face teaching for in-service teachers (TÉLUQ)
  • use of iBook Author software for content management for cardiology students and faculty in a teaching hospital (Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Sherbrooke – Sherbrooke University Hospital: CHUS)
  • a decision-making tool to develop active and coherent learning scenarios that leverage the use of learning technologies (Université de Montréal).
  • Mathema-TIC: francophone open educational resources for teaching mathematics in universities and colleges (Université de Montréal).

These visits would not have been possible without the assistance of France Lafleur, an online instructor from UQTR who not only arranged many of the meetings but also did all the driving. Anyone from outside Québec who has tried to drive across the province in winter, and especially tried to navigate and drive to several parts of Montréal the same day, will understand why this help was invaluable.

Response and reaction

Faculty and instructors often receive a lot of criticism for being resistant to change in their teaching. This project however starts from an opposite position. What are faculty and instructors actually doing in terms of innovation in their teaching? What can we learn from this regarding change and the development of new teaching approaches? What works and what doesn’t?

It is dangerous at this stage to start drawing conclusions. This is not a representative selection of even innovative projects, and the project – in terms of my participation – has just started. The definition of innovation is also imprecise. It’s like trying to describe an elephant to someone who’s never seen one: you might find it difficult to imagine, but you’ll know it when you see it.

However, even with such a small sample, some things are obvious:

  • innovation in online teaching is alive and well in Canadian post-secondary education: there is a lot going on. It was not difficult to identify these 11 cases; I could have easily found many more if I had the time;
  • the one common feature across all the instructors I have interviewed is their enthusiasm and passion for their projects. They are all genuinely excited by what they were doing. Their teaching has been galvanised by their involvement in the innovation; 
  • in some of the cases, there are measured improvements in student learning outcomes, or, more importantly, new ’21st century skills’ such as teamwork, evidence-based argumentation, and knowledge management are being developed as a result of the innovation;
  • although again these are early days for me, there seems to be a widening gap between what is actually happening on the ground and what we read or hear about in the literature and at conferences on innovation in online learning. The innovation I am seeing is often built around simple but effective changes, such as a web-based map, or a slight change of teaching approach, such as opening up a lecture class to students who don’t want to – or can’t – come in to the campus on a particular day. However, these innovations are radically changing the dynamics of classroom teaching;
  • blended learning is breaking out all over the place. Most of these cases involve a mix of classroom and online learning, but there is no standard model – such as flipped classrooms – emerging. They all vary quite considerably from each other; 
  • the innovations are still somewhat isolated although a couple have gone beyond the original instructor and have been adopted by colleagues; however there is usually no institutional strategy or process for evaluating innovations and making sure that they are taken up across a wider range of teaching, although instructional designers working together provide one means for doing this. Evaluation of the innovation though is usually just left to the innovator, with all the risks that this entails in terms of objectivity.

Next steps

I still have at least one more case from another institution in British Columbia to follow up, and I now have a backlog of reports to do. I hope to have these all finished by the end of this month.

I have two more trips to organise. The first will be to the prairie provinces:

  • Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, which I hope to do in mid-March.

The next will be to the Maritimes,

  • Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, and Newfoundland, which I will do probably in April or May.

No further cases or institutions have been identified at this moment, and I am definitely open to suggestions in these provinces if you have any. The criterion for choice is as follows:

  • The focus is first and foremost on practice, on actual teaching and learning applications – not policy, funding, planning issues, descriptions of broad services, or broader concerns.
  • The interest is in applications of pedagogy using technology for classroom, blended, and online learning with the emphasis on student learning, engagement, assessment, access, etc. The pedagogy is as important as the technology in terms of innovation.
  • The emphasis is on innovative practices that can be replicated or used by other instructors.
  • We are particularly looking for cases where some form of evaluation of the innovation has been conducted or where there is clear evidence of success.

If you can recommend a case that you think fits well these parameters, please drop me a line at tony.bates@ubc.ca.

In the meantime, look out for the case studies being posted to Contact North’s Pocket of Innovation web site over the next few months. There are also more cases from Ontario being done at the same time.

French version of ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ now available

French version 2

The French version of ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’, L’enseignement a l’ère numerique‘, is now available from here.

I am very grateful to Contact North|Contact Nord for providing this professional translation.

There is now also a version in Vietnamese, ‘Dạy học trong kỷ nguyên số‘, translated by Lê Trung Nghĩa of the Ministry of Education in Vietnam, available through Dropbox here.

Spanish version, translated by staff in the Faculty of Engineering, Universidad de Buenos Aires, is almost complete and will be available from the BCcampus open textbook site (as will all the translations). I will provide an announcement containing the url when it is available.

A Chinese version, translated by staff at the Beijing Open University, will be available in August, 2016.

A Portuguese version, being translated by ABED, the Brazilian Association of Distance Education, will be available in time for its Annual Congress in September, 2016.

Turkish version is currently under consideration. I am awaiting more details.

Please note: under the Creative Commons license of the book, anyone is free to translate all or any part of the book, provided it is not used for commercial purposes and I am acknowledged as the author. I am sure that without this license, the book would not have become available so quickly in so many languages. However, if you do decide to translate the book, please let me know, so I can track its use and provide updates.

 

The future of learning content – and campus bookstores

Bookstore line-up

Ellis, T. (2016) Developing a course content strategy University Business, February

This article has made me realise the still massive difference between what actually happens on campus and the future we are moving to. This article is written primarily for campus book store managers and makes me think that they don’t know what’s going to hit them over the next few years.

The article was based on a survey that came to the following conclusion:

students and faculty prefer printed textbooks but cost and enhanced learning experiences are fuelling interest in the transition to digital and ultimately to adaptive learning courseware and platform-based products… content creators… will continue to proliferate…conditions will favor retail giants and smaller niche players

The article then goes on (not surprisingly) to argue that campus store managers should play a key role in making decisions about course materials and related services.

Why they are in for a shock

We’ve already seen that BCcampus has now developed online, open textbooks for most of the core curriculum for first and second year university and college courses, saving students over $1 million in text book costs. How long before other jurisdictions move in this direction?

Secondly, increasing amounts of research, data and learning materials are now available through open access journals. Increasingly ‘niche’ textbooks for more advanced or higher level courses will also be available online through Amazon, Apple and other ‘retail giants’ – or delivered to the student’s door. Faculty and students will increasingly use online open educational resources as content. And finally, faculty and instructors will increasingly move away from recommending ‘packaged’ content to getting learners to find, analyse, integrate and evaluate the massive amount of content that will be freely available over the Internet, thus facilitating the development of learners fit for a knowledge-based society.

So the day when students have to queue for hours in the book store for the first few days of the semester should become a distant memory, as soon as possible. More seriously, why then would book store managers be involved in decisions about learning content any more?

Sure there will always be a role for a store on campus, and it may have a very small section for niche books, but campus ‘book stores’ will soon be as outdated as typewriters.

Problems with the use of images in open textbooks

If you have downloaded my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ in pdf or Modi format for the iPad or Kobo, you may have noticed that many of the images I have liberally used throughout the book do not fit on the page or have become separated from their ‘frame’ (the green and black lines before and after the images), in the downloaded versions.

The problem

Here is an example (I have reduced the size of both images):

This is the html version that you would read by going to the book site (http://opentextbc.ca/teachinginadigitalage/)

Original html web version

Original html web version

Nice, isn’t it? And this is how it appears in the pdf version:

pdf version

pdf version

You can see the image has been removed from the frame and dropped into the next page.

The same kind of thing happens in the iPad and Kindle versions, only worse, because the screen size is smaller. I realise this is not a unique problem and one faced every day when moving materials to mobile devices.

The reason

This happens primarily because the html version read on computer screens or laptops scrolls, while the pdf and mobile device versions are paginated. What fits nicely on a scrolled screen does not always fit a paginated version because the image is too large to fit within the remaining page space, so it is bounced to the next page. This is made worse by my having artistically framed the images. The frames are independent objects from the image though so do not move with the image when it is ‘bounced’.

Solutions

OK, I should have known this would happen, but I didn’t until after I finished the book. (This is one form of experiential learning that I don’t recommend). One way to minimise (but not eliminate by any means) the problem would be to avoid putting in frames for the images (the frames were suggested by a highly professional graphic designer) and keeping the in-text images much smaller. However, reducing the size of the images is not always desirable, especially with complex or detailed images.

In the end, it is a software problem needing a software solution, such as the ability to integrate frames around images, and to resize images to fit the pagination or to move paragraphs around the image until it fits the page.

The dilemma

So what should I do now? The html version works beautifully, but even reducing the size of graphics and moving them won’t solve the problem for the exported versions, because each exported version is different in the way it handles the lay-out. I could go through the whole book and remove the frames but there are over 100 images and graphics throughout the book.

Should I leave the frames? I can’t leave them on the html version and remove them from the other versions because the other versions are direct and complete exports of the html version. I also can’t edit the pdf version independently of the html version without creating a whole shadow site.

Is there a way to ‘fit’ frames to images in WordPress? if there is please let me know!

Does it matter?

This is where I really need your advice. OK, so it isn’t perfect as a pdf or on an iPad, but is it good enough? My wife says I’m crazy to worry about this (‘It’s the content that matters’), and my best friend accused me of being a compulsive-obsessive personality (that’s what good friends are there for, to tell you the truth), and he said if people don’t like it, they can use their laptop, but my wife and my friend are not the audience for this book. You are, and if this is a problem for you, I need to know.

So what’s your advice on this? Don’t worry about it, or find a solution, and if so, what?

Integrating open textbooks, open research and open data into teaching

Figure 10.9.1 Open Stax open textbooks

This is the third of five posts on open education for my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. The previous two posts were:

Open textbooks

Textbooks are an increasing cost to students. Some textbooks cost $200 or more, and in North America a university undergraduate may be required to spend between $800-$1,000 a year on textbooks. An open textbook on the other hand is an openly-licensed, online publication free for downloading for educational or non-commercial use. You are currently reading an open textbook. There are an increasing number of  sources for open textbooks, such as OpenStax College from Rice University, and the Open Academics Textbook Catalog at the University of Minnesota

In British Columbia, the provincial government is funding the B.C. open textbook project, in collaboration with the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The B.C. open textbook project focuses on making available openly-licensed textbooks in the highest-enrolled academic subject areas and also in trades and skills training. The B.C. open textbooks have the same four principles of OER plus a fifth,

  • Retain – i.e. no digital rights management restrictions (DRM), the content is yours to keep, whether you’re the author, instructor or student.

In the B.C. project, as in many of the other sources, all the books are selected, peer reviewed and in some cases developed by local faculty. Often these textbooks are not ‘original’ work, in the sense of new knowledge, but carefully written and well illustrated summaries of current thinking in the different subject areas.

Advantages of open textbooks

Students and governments, through grants and financial aid, pay billions of dollars each year on textbooks. Open textbooks can make a significant impact on reducing the cost of education.

There are also other considerations. It is a common sight to see lengthy line-ups at college bookstores all through the first week of the first semester (which replaces important study time). Because students may be searching for second-hand versions of the books from other students, it may well be into the second or third week of the semester before students actually get their copy. Cable Green of the Creative Commons has pointed to research that shows that when first year math students have their textbooks from the first day, they do much better than students who often don’t get the key textbook until three weeks into the course. He also pointed to research from Florida Virtual Campus that indicates that many students (over 60 per cent) simply do not buy all the required textbooks, for a variety of reasons, but the main one being cost (Green, 2013).

So why shouldn’t government pay the creators of textbooks directly, cut out the middleman (commercial publishers), save over 80% on the cost, and distribute the books to students (or anyone else) for free over the Internet, under a Creative Commons license? Cable Green’s ‘vision’ for open textbooks is: 100 per cent of students have 100 per cent free, digital access to all materials by day one.

Limitations of open textbooks

Murphy (2103) questions the whole idea of textbooks, whether open or not. She sees textbooks as a relic of 19th century industrialism, a form of mass broadcasting. In the 21st century, students should be finding, accessing and collecting digital materials over the Internet. Textbooks are merely packaged learning, with the authors doing the work for students. Nevertheless, it has to be recognized that textbooks are still the basic currency for most forms of education, and while this remains the case, open textbooks are a much better alternative for students than expensive printed textbooks.

Quality also remains a concern. There is an in-built prejudice that ‘free’ must mean poor quality.Thus the same arguments about quality of OER also apply to open textbooks. In particular, the expensive commercially published textbooks usually include in-built activities, supplementary materials such as extra readings, and even assessment questions.

Others (including myself) question the likely impact of ‘open’ publishing on creating original works that are not likely to get subsidized by government because they are either too specialized, or are not yet part of a standard curriculum for the subject; in other words will open publishing impact negatively on the diversity of publishing? What is the incentive for someone now to publish a unique work, if there is no financial reward for the effort? Writing an original, single authored book remains hard work, however it is published.

Although there is now a range of  ‘open’ publishing services, there are still costs for an author to create original work. Who will pay, for instance, for specialized graphics, for editing or for review? I have used my blog to get sections of my book reviewed, and this has proved extremely useful, but it is not the same as having top experts in the field doing a systematic review before publication. Marketing is another issue (although my experience is that publishers are very poor at properly marketing specialised textbooks, expecting the author to mainly self-market, while the publisher still takes 85-90 per cent of all sales revenues.) Nevertheless there are real costs in marketing an open textbook. How can all these costs be recovered? Much more work still needs to be done to support the open publishing of original work in book format. If so, what does that mean for how knowledge is created, disseminated and preserved? If open textbook publishing is to be successful, new, sustainable business models will need to be developed. In particular, some form of government subsidy or financial support for open textbooks is probably going to be essential.

Nevertheless, although these are all important concerns, they are not insurmountable problems. Just getting a proportion of the main textbooks available to students for free is a major step forward.

Learn how to adopt and use an open textbook

BC campus has mounted a short MOOC on the P2PU portal on Adopting Open Textbooks. Although the MOOC may not be active when you access the site, it still has most of the materials, including videos, available.

Open research

Governments in some countries such as the USA and the United Kingdom are requiring all research published as a result of government funding to be openly accessible in a digital format. In Canada, recent Supreme Court decisions and new legislation means that it is much easier to access and use free of charge online materials for educational purposes, although there are still some restrictions.

Commercial publishers, who have dominated the market for academic journals, are understandably fighting back. Where the journal has a high reputation and hence carries substantial weight in the assessment of research publications, publishers are charging researchers for making the research openly available. The kudos of publishing in an established journal acts as a disincentive for researchers to publish in less prestigious open journals without having to pay to get published. However, it can only be a question of time before academics fight back against this system, by establishing their own peer reviewed journals that will be perceived to be of the highest standard by the quality of the papers and the status of the researchers publishing in such journals. Once again, though, open research publishing will flourish only by meeting the highest standards of peer review and quality research, by finding a sustainable business model, and by researchers themselves taking control over the publishing process.

Over time, therefore, we can expect nearly all academic research in journals to become openly available.

Open data

In 2004, the Science Ministers of all nations of the OECD, which includes most developed countries of the world, signed a declaration which essentially states that all publicly funded archive data should be made publicly available. Following an intense discussion with data-producing institutions in member states, the OECD published in 2007 the OECD Principles and Guidelines for Access to Research Data from Public Funding.

The two main sources of open data are from science and government. In science, the Human Genome Project is perhaps the best example, and several national or provincial governments have created web sites to distribute a portion of the data they collect, such as the B.C. Data Catalogue in Canada.

Again, increasing amounts of important data are becoming openly available, providing more resources with high potential for learning.

The significance for teaching and learning of the developments in open access, OER, open textbooks and open data will be explored more fully in the next section.

Activity 10.9 Using open resources

1. Check with OpenStax College, the Open Academics Textbook Catalog and the B.C. open textbook project to see if there are any suitable open textbooks for your subject. If you have any comments on specific books, please post them in the comment section for other readers.

2. What open journals are there in your subject area? (The help of a librarian may be useful here.) Are the articles of good quality? Could your students use these if they were conducting research in this area?

3. Ask your librarian for help in looking for open data sites that might have useful data that you could use in your teaching. Would students be able to find these data sites by themselves, with just a little guidance? How could they or you use this open data in their learning?

Feedback, please

In the field of educational technology, there are some good quality open journals, such as IRRODL, which are as good as any ‘closed’ published journal in the field. However, I don’t have much knowledge about open journals in other fields, and my son, who is a research scientist, is adamant that he would never think of publishing in an open science journal, because it would not carry enough weight when he writes grant proposals.

In addition, I have never used open data (apart from data from Stats Canada, UNESCO and the OECD) in my own teaching, so any comments or feedback on open journals and open data, especially in terms of how I should handle these topics in a book that aims to support a broad range of teachers and instructors, will be very much appreciated.

Lastly, are the three activities suggested reasonable from your point of view (especially if you are a librarian!)?

Up next

The next section to come tomorrow is what all the previous three posts have been leading up to: the implications of ‘open’ for course and program design.

References

Green, C. (2013) Open Education, MOOCs, Student Debt, Textbooks and Other Trends Vancouver BC: COHERE 2013 conference

Murphy, E. (2103) Day 2 panel discussion Vancouver BC: COHERE 2013 conference (video: 4’40” from start)