August 28, 2014

Developing intellectual and practical skills in a digital age

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Skills 2

The story so far

Chapter 5 of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ is about the design of teaching and learning, which I am currently writing and publishing as I go.

I started Chapter 5 by suggesting that instructors should think about design through the lens of constructing a comprehensive learning environment in which teaching and learning will take place. I have started to work through the various components of a learning environment, focusing particularly on how the digital age affects the way we need to look at some of these components.

I started by looking at how the characteristics of our learners are changing, and followed that by examining how our perspectives on content are being influenced by the digital age. In this post, I look at how both intellectual and practical skills can be developed to meet the needs of a digital age. The following posts will do the same for learner support, resources and assessment respectively.

This will then lead to a discussion of different models for designing teaching and learning. These models aim to provide a structure for and integration of these various components of a learning environment.

Scenario: Developing historical thinking

© Wenxue City: China During the Early Days of the Reform

© Wenxue City: China During the Early Days of the Reform

Ralph Goodyear is a professor of history in a public Tier 1 research university in the central United States. He has a class of 120 undergraduate students taking HIST 305, ‘Historiography’.

For the first three weeks of the course, Goodyear had recorded a series of short 15 minute video lectures that covered the following topics/content:

  • the various sources used by historians (e.g. earlier writings, empirical records including registries of birth, marriage and death, eye witness accounts, artifacts such as paintings, photographs, and physical evidence such as ruins.)
  • the themes around which historical analysis tend to be written,
  • some of the techniques used by historians, such as narrative, analysis and interpretation
  • three different positions or theories about history (objectivist, marxist, post modernist).

Students downloaded the videos according to a schedule suggested by Goodyear. Students attended two one hour classes a week, where specific topics covered in the videos were discussed. Students also had an online discussion forum in the course space on the university’s learning management system, where Goodyear had posted similar topics for discussion. Students were expected to make at least one substantive contribution to each online topic for which they received a grade that went towards their final grade.

Students also had to read a major textbook on historiography over this three week period.

In the fourth week, he divided the class into twelve groups of six, and asked each group to research the history of any city outside the United States over the last 50 years or so. They could use whatever sources they could find, including online sources such as newspaper reports, images, research publications, and so on, as well as the university’s own library collection. In writing their report, they had to do the following:

  • pick a particular theme that covered the 50 years and write a narrative based around the theme
  • identify the sources they finally used in their report, and discuss why they selected some sources and dismissed others
  • compare their approach to the three positions covered in the lectures
  • post their report in the form of an online e-portfolio in the course space on the university’s learning management system

They had five weeks to do this.

The last three weeks of the course were devoted to presentations by each of the groups, with comments, discussion and questions, both in class and online (the in class presentations were recorded and made available online). At the end of the course, students assigned grades to each of the other groups’ work. Goodyear took these student gradings into consideration, but reserved the right to adjust the grades, with an explanation of why he did the adjustment. Goodyear also gave each student an individual grade, based on both their group’s grade, and their personal contribution to the online and class discussions.

Goodyear commented that he was surprised and delighted at the quality of the students’ work. He said: ‘What I liked was that the students weren’t learning about history; they were doing it.’

Based on an actual case, but with some embellishments.

Skills in a digital age

In Chapter 1, Section 1.4, I listed some of the skills that graduates need in a digital age, and argued that this requires a greater focus on developing such skills, at all levels of education, but particularly at a post-secondary level, where the focus is often on specialised content. Although skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and creative thinking have always been valued in higher education, the identification and development of such skills is often implicit and almost accidental, as if students will somehow pick up these skills from observing faculty themselves demonstrating such skills or through some form of osmosis resulting from the study of content. I also pointed out in the same section, though, that there is substantial research on skills development but the knowledge deriving from such research is at best applied haphazardly, if at all, to the development of intellectual skills.

Furthermore the skills required in a digital age are broader and more wide ranging than the abstract academic skills traditionally developed in higher education. For instance, they need to be grounded just as much in digital communications media as in traditional writing or lecturing, and include the development of digital competence and expertise within a subject domain, as well as skills such as independent learning and knowledge management. These are not so much new skills as a different emphasis, focus or direction.

It is somewhat artificial to separate content from skills, because content is the fuel that drives the development of intellectual skills. At the same time, in more traditionally vocational training, we see the reverse trend in a digital age, with much more focus on developing high level conceptual thinking as well as manual skills development. My aim here is not to downplay the importance of content, but to ensure that skills development receives as much focus and attention from instructors, and that we approach intellectual skills development in the same rigorous and explicit way as apprentices are trained in manual skills.

Setting goals for skills development

Thus a critical step is to be explicit about what skills a particular course or program is trying to develop, and to define these goals in such a way that they can be implemented and assessed. In other words it is not enough to say that a course aims to develop critical thinking, but to state clearly what this would look like in the context of the particular course or content area, in ways that are clear to students. In particular the ‘skills’ goals should be capable of assessment and students should be aware of the criteria or rubrics that will be used for assessment.

Thinking activities

A skill is not binary, in the sense that you either have it or you don’t. There is a tendency to talk about skills and competencies in terms of novice, intermediate, expert, and master, but in reality skills require constant practice and application and there is, at least with regard to intellectual skills, no final destination. So it is critically important when designing a course or program to design activities that require students to develop, practice and apply thinking skills on a continuous basis, preferably in a way that starts with small steps and leads eventually to larger ones. There are many ways in which this can be done, such as written assignments, project work, and focused discussion, but these thinking activities need to be thought about, planned and implemented on a consistent basis by the instructor.

Practical activities

It is a given in vocational programs that students need lots of practical activities to develop their manual skills. This though is equally true for intellectual skills. Students need to be able to demonstrate where they are along the road to mastery, get feedback on it, and retry as a result. This means doing work that enables them to practice specific skills.

In the scenario above, students had to cover and understand the essential content in the first three weeks, do research in a group, develop an agreed project report, in the form of an e-portfolio, share it with other students and the instructor for comments, feedback and assessment, and present their report orally and online. Ideally, they will have the opportunity to carry over many of these skills into other courses where the skills can be further refined and developed. Thus, with skills development, a longer term horizon than a single course will be necessary, so integrated program as well as course planning is important.

Discussion as a tool for developing intellectual skills

Discussion is a very important tool for developing thinking skills. However, not any kind of discussion. It was argued in Chapter 2 that academic knowledge requires a different kind of thinking to everyday thinking. It usually requires students to see the world differently, in terms of underlying principles, abstractions and ideas. Thus discussion needs to be carefully managed by the instructor, so that it focuses on the development of skills in thinking that are integral to the area of study. This requires the instructor to plan, structure and support discussion within the class, keeping the discussions in focus, and providing opportunities to demonstrate how experts in the field approach topics under discussion, and comparing students’ efforts.

Figure 5.3: Online threaded discussion forums provide students with opportunities for developing intellectual skills, but the instructor needs to design and manage such forums carefully for this to happen

Figure 5.3: Online threaded discussion forums provide students with opportunities for developing intellectual skills, but the instructor needs to design and manage such forums carefully for this to happen

In conclusion

There are many opportunities in even the most academic courses to develop intellectual and practical skills that will carry over into work and life activities in a digital age, without corrupting the values or standards of academia. Even in vocational courses, students need opportunities to practice intellectual or conceptual skills such as problem-solving, communication skills, and collaborative learning. However, this won’t happen merely through the delivery of content. Instructors need to:

  • think carefully about exactly what skills their students need,
  • how this fits with the nature of the subject matter,
  • the kind of activities that will allow students to develop and improve their intellectual skills, and
  • how to give feedback and to assess those skills, within the time and resources available.

This is a very brief discussion of how and why skills development should be an integral part of any learning environment. We will be discussing skills and skill development in more depth in later chapters.

Over to you

Your views, comments and criticisms are always welcome. In particular:

  • how does the history scenario work for you? Does it demonstrate adequately the points I’m making about skills development?
  • are the skills being developed by students in the history scenario relevant to a digital age?
  • is this post likely to change the way you think about teaching your subject, or do you already cover skills development adequately? If you feel you do cover skills development well, does your approach differ from mine?

Love to hear from you.

Next up

Learner support in a digital age


E-learning in 2011: a retrospective

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‘That was the year that was, it’s over, let it go…’, as the old song says. But before it does go, let’s look back and see what happened in the world of e-learning in 2011.

First, a disclaimer. I sit here on the edge of the world, in my little office, and although I make the occasional sally into an institution of higher education, I see only a tiny fraction of what is actually going on around the world. No-one is more conscious of the problem of defining ‘reality’ as I am, especially in such a dynamic world as e-learning, where rhetoric is often far distanced from actual practice. So, no, this is not a scientific review of the year, but a personal view of events that seem significant to me looking back. (I will be doing an outlook for 2012 early in the year).

Learning management systems

LMSs had trundled on fairly quietly for nearly 15 years (apart from an aggressive but unsuccessful campaign by Blackboard to dominate the market) to the point where LMSs are now used by 95% of all post-secondary institutions in North America.

2011 though saw some dramatic developments. Blackboard moved into synchronous tools with the purchase of Elluminate and Wimba, and was itself bought by a shadowy private equity company which also gobbled up Sungard  Higher Education and Datatel, positioning itself as a totally integrated software provider for the higher education industry. Despite this, Blackboard continued to lose market share to both commercial competitors such as Desire2Learn, and to open source systems such as Moodle and Sakai.

Into this already highly competitive and fragmenting market came several new companies, the largest and most immediately threatening to Blackboard being Pearson’s Open Class. Instructure is another company with a different way of looking at learning management, and in Europe, ‘its Learning‘ has been making large gains. I have a less clear picture of what’s happening in India, but if my e-mail is anything to go by, there are several large companies offering LMSs in that continent, and looking to expand internationally.

However, not only is there more competition, but views are changing about the desired features of an LMS. In particular, there are increasing efforts by the LMS organizations to incorporate social media, to enable mobile access, and to enable institutions to make their content ‘open’ from within an LMS. Some institutions are getting sick of continuous and costly upgrades and migration, and are taking care to ensure that any content created is easily exportable so that the institution does not become platform dependent.

I think the last strategy is very wise. There are too many players in a relatively small field and someone’s going to get concussion or even completely taken out of the game. What is clear is that institutional decision-making is going to get harder, not easier. Technological change outside the LMS continues at a rapid pace. Can an LMS be all things to all people? Probably not. It will become important then not just to focus on which LMS to use, but increasingly on how one wants to teach, and what combination of tools provides that flexibility. The LMS is not going to continue as a one-stop technology for teaching, if it ever did. But nor is it going to go away, at least not for the next few years.

Course redesign

Although I have seen quite a lot of innovation in pockets and on a small scale, I have seen little over 2011 in the way of major redesign of courses. Instead, there has been a large increase in lecture capture generally. The major design development seems to be ‘flipping’, inspired by the Khan Academy. Instead of having students come to a lecture in real time, the lecture is recorded and downloaded by students at home (sometimes the instructor does not record a lecture themselves but gets students to download lectures from the Khan Academy or other open educational resource sites such as MIT), and class time is spent on discussion or small group work. This is probably an improvement (anyone have any evidence yet?) but it is not going to start a revolution.

What I was looking for in 2011 was a major breakthrough in the redesign of large lecture classes, along the lines of the NCAT course redesign project. Although Carol Twigg is soldiering bravely on, there is still a huge way to go to change the traditional large lecture class across campuses in North America and elsewhere. We continue to add bells and whistles to the horse and cart, in the form of large screens, clickers, in-class tweets, lecture capture, polling via mobile phones, and real-time access to data and news events in class via the Internet, but it’s still a horse and cart. When are we going to get a railway, never mind a high speed train?

What I have found encouraging (in the isolated pockets of innovation) is the attempt by some instructors to give power to learners, through the use of blogs, wikis and e-portfolios. to enable learners to create their own learning materials, and to share and collaborate with others. Can we move this from the early adopters though to the cautious mainstream in 2012?

Mobile learning

There has definitely been progress at an institutional level in mobile learning during 2011.  Some institutions, such as Abilene Christian, Northeastern, Stanford, Carnegie mellon and Tufts have implemented institutional strategies to make mobile learning widely available. The iPad in particular has been integrated successfully, mainly into regular classroom teaching, but also in other areas, such as clinical practice.

However, the main uses still remain mainly administrative, for student support services, and for more flexible access to standard online content. I did not find many instances of redesigning teaching to exploit the affordances of mobile learning, such as use of location, data collection in the field, interviews, etc. Nevertheless, all learning is rapidly becoming ‘mobile enabled’.

Open educational resources

There were several important developments in open educational resources in 2011. Perhaps the most noticeable was the formation of the OERu, which is attempting to combine open access to content with institutional accreditation. A growing number of institutions and individual instructors are making their online content freely accessible, and some institutions, such as the University of British Columbia, have extensive cross-institutional blogs and wikis created by instructors, students, and ‘experts’ or interested parties from outside the institution that are often linked to formal courses, but sit outside the LMS, and are open to the public.

Apart though from special cases such as OER Africa, special collections or repositories of open educational resources did not seem to me to be gaining traction in 2011. This is one area where the rhetoric seems at odds with the reality. I don’t see a lot of take-up of OERs in post-secondary institutions. There is plenty of supply and lots of ‘hits’, but it is hard to find extensive application within formal learning environments. ‘Open-ness’ is growing, but in ways that are not quite what was anticipated by the more dedicated proponents of OERs.

Yes, content is becoming more readily accessible, but what really matters to many learners is open access to and interaction with quality faculty or instructors, leading to recognized qualifications, and many institutions that proclaim the principle of open content deny open access to learners, either through too expensive tuition fees or through too rigorous entry requirements. This is the reality of limited resources.

Online learning continues to grow

Growth in enrollments in online courses was again up, by 1o%. The pace is slowing a little, but this is still impressive, given the impact of the economy and the very slow growth rate of conventional enrollments, at around 2% last year in the USA.

The rest

There were several other topics I predicted in my outlook for 2011. I will come back to learning analytics in my outlook for 2012. Otherwise shared services did not take off in 2011, as I had hoped, but I did perceive increased use of video in particular, not just in the form of lecture capture, but an increasing number of short video clips for education on YouTube. Gaming and simulations remained on the periphery, and virtual worlds almost disappeared off the e-learning radar in 2011 (except in Finland, but they live in another reality anyway!). Blended learning continues to grow, but I’m not sure what the term means anymore.


Slow but definite progress in online learning was made in 2011. Certainly growth continues, and there is a great deal of innovative activity around the fringes of formal courses, and especially in informal learning. The LMS and lecture capture remain though the bedrock for most online learning, and that’s not the future I’m looking for.

And I do miss Amy, a great singer. Let’s see what happens in 2012.


IRRODL’s new issue on emergent learning

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IRRODL, Vol. 12, No. 7, 2011: Special Issue: Emergent Learning, Connections, Design for Learning

The guest editors, Rod Sims and Elena Kays have collected together a number of articles on emergent learning which Williams, Karousou, and Mackness (2011, p. 41) have described as “learning which arises out of the interaction between a number of people and resources, in which the learners organise and determine both the process and to some extent the learning destinations, both of which are unpredictable”.

This is an edition that I can’t quickly review. There are some very thought-provoking articles in this edition, and I need time not just to read them, but also to think about them (not pointillist, I must admit). Here though is a very brief listing of the articles with a direct link. I will probably though do separate posts on several of the articles below (I may well end up reviewing them all!).

Rod Sims and Elena Kays: Editorial. This provides not only a brief summary of each of the articles, but some important definitions.

Gail Casey and Terry Evans: Designing for learning: Online social networks as a classroom environment

Pekka Ihanainen and  John Moravec : Pointillist, cyclical, and overlapping: Multidimensional facets of time in online education I will definitely be discussing this fascinating article in a later post

Marta Kawka, Kevin Larkin, and Patrick Alan Danaher Emergent learning and interactive media artworks: Parameters of interaction for novice groups

Katherine Joyce Janzen, Beth Perry, and Margaret Edwards  Aligning the quantum perspective of learning to instructional design: Exploring the seven definitive questions

Rita Kop, Hélène Fournier, and John Sui Fai Mak A pedagogy of abundance or a pedagogy to support human beings? Participant support on massive open online courses I will certainly be commenting on both this and the other MOOC article, in the light of my own, recent experience.

Inge de Waard, Sean Abajian, Michael Sean Gallagher, Rebecca Hogue, Nilgün Keskin, Apostolos Koutropoulos, and Osvaldo C. Rodriguez Using mLearning and MOOCs to understand chaos, emergence, and complexity in education

David Murphy Chaos rules” revisited - a discussion of chaos theory and doing a Ph.D – gotta read this!

Carlo Antonio Ricci Emergent, self-directed, and self-organized learning: Literacy, numeracy, and the iPod Touch

Nataly Tcherepashenets  Book review – Telecollaboration 2.0: Language, literacies and intercultural learning in the 21st century, by Sara Guth and Francesca Helm

Damn you, Terry – I’ve now got about a week’s really heavy but interesting reading to do now!




Book review: Clark Quinn’s ‘The Mobile Academy’

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© Anthony's Blog, 2009-2011

Quinn, C. (2012) The Mobile Academy: mLearning for Higher Education San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley, 120 pp

The author points out that 90% of the world’s population now has access to mobile networks, yet less than a quarter of post-secondary educational institutions in North America have mobile learning or administrative activities. As the author states: ‘Mobile has matured and stabilized to the point where it now makes sense to understand, plan and start developing mobile solutions….What we have on tap is the opportunity to revisit the fundamentals of the learning experience and use technology to come closer to the ideals we would like to achieve.‘ The book sets out in a straightforward, non-technical way a set of strategies for mobile learning so as ‘to optimize the learner experience‘.

From the preface:

Who the book is for

This book is for the higher education instructor and folks that support them as instructional designers or in administrative services.


The book provides the background information necessary to successfully design mobile learning solutions


1. The Mobile Revolution: no, this is not directly about the Arab Spring, but a brief introduction, focusing particularly on why higher education needs to pay attention to mobile learning.

2. Foundations: mobile: a brief introduction to the underlying technology behind mobile devices.

3. Foundations: learning: another brief but well-founded introduction to the principles/theories of learning relevant to mobile learning

4. Administration to go: an introduction to learner support focused on issues that are not directly associated with teaching and learning: What needs do students have for information and transactions on campus? Can they be provided any time and anywhere via mobile communications?

5. Content is king: this chapter focuses on using mobiles for delivering or accessing content in its various forms; it includes a useful summary of the status of various LMSs in supporting mobile at the time of writing.

6. Practice: interactivity and assessment deals with learner activities, practice/applications of learning and various forms of assessment available through or facilitated by mobile devices

7. Going social examines the various ways mobile devices can support social learning

8 Going beyond discusses the ‘cutting edge’ of mobile applications, including augmented reality, alternate reality and adaptive delivery

9. Getting going: organizational issues focuses on the organizational context needed to support mobile learning, such as design, development, implementation and policies, and the chapter ends with a brief conclusion to the book


I really liked this book. It’s probably no co-incidence that a book on mobile learning is short and simple (critical design features for mobile applications). However, it is not trivial. It is based on sound pedagogical principles. It focuses not only on what’s involved in the general transfer of digital learning from desktops or laptops to digital devices, but also focuses on the special ‘affordances’ of mobile learning. In particular, Quinn organizes the book around his four ‘C’s of mobile learning: content; capture; compute; and communicate.

This book is squarely aimed at faculty and instructors. It is not intended for IT specialists and probably won’t satisfy the more experienced users of mobile learning. But it is an excellent introduction to mobile learning for instructors in the 75% of institutions that do not have a mobile strategy yet, and for those instructors in the other institutions who are still hesitating about committing to mobile applications.

However, reading the book on its own is unlikely to be enough for many instructors. They will need to work with IT and media support staff and instructional designers if they are to avoid overwork and poor quality applications. A lot of the value from mobile learning requires fairly sophisticated media production, for instance, that is likely to beyond the scope of most instructors, working alone. Above all, institutions need to be committed to supporting mobile learning as a key strategy and to put in place the organization and support needed to make it a success. But this book will be a great start for many instructors, and I hope also that this will be read by senior managers in the 75% of institutions without a mobile strategy.


The image at the head of this post is from an excellent case study of mobile learning at St Edmund’s Catholic School, Wolverhampton, UK, in Anthony’s Blog in, February 25, 2011

See also: Sharples, M., Corlett, D., & Westmancott, O.  (2002)  The design and implementation of a mobile learning resource. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing Vol. 6, No. 3 pp. 220-234.

e-learning outlook for 2011

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Photo of monkey thinking

What’s in my crystal ball for e-learning in 2011? (For how well I did in my predictions for 2010, see e-learning retrospective – how good were my predictions?

1. Course Redesign

We will see increasing efforts at redesigning courses to incorporate both online and face-to-face teaching. Indeed, there was evidence of this occurring already in 2010. Instructors were realising that instead of just adding online components to their face-to-face classes, they could obtain more benefit from thinking clearly about what is best done online and what is best done face-to-face. This inevitably leads to redesigning the teaching and learning experience.

Stretching the LMS

The wave of new web 2.0 technologies, such as student blogs, wikis, and especially e-portfolios, and open source content management software such as WordPress, are beginning to expose the limitations of commercial or ‘off-the-shelf’ learning management systems. In particular, these new web 2.0 tools enable students as well as instructors to create, load and edit content. This increases active learning, and provides means to collect, organize and assess student work in more authentic ways than tests or essays.

However, learning management systems still have major advantages, in that they provide an institutionally secure environment, enable the management of learning, and integrate with administrative systems. Thus designers are looking for ways to integrate web 2.0 tools with learning management systems (Mott, 2010).

Also as students get more tools and more encouragement to use these tools for learning, there is the possibility of creating ‘personal learning environments‘, software interfaces that the learner can add to or edit, to facilitate their learning. These might include a portal to their courses that would include access to an LMS, but would also include links to their blog, e-portfolio, and social networks such as Facebook.

One view of personal learning environments

Open source LMS, such as Moodle and Sakai, have an advantage here in that designers in large research universities with access to open source developers can build and integrate open source web 2.0 tools into the LMS more easily than can institutions locked into commercial providers such as Blackboard, although these too are increasingly building in web 2.0 ‘lookalike’ functions.

Learner-generated content

Students now have access to mobile phones with camera and audio recording capabilities, access to low cost video cameras, and access to video editing through software on their laptops and video publishing through YouTube. Students now can collect data, organize and edit it, and publish it. In addition, through the Internet, they can access a multitude of resources far beyond the limits of a traditional class curriculum. They can do all this outside the confines of the classroom. This is resulting in new course designs focused on learner-generated content, but working to overall academic guidelines and principles established by the instructor.

One example is the use of e-portfolios for professional accreditation. The BC College of Teachers now requires students to provide an online portfolio showing evidence of their application of their personal philosophy of teaching during their teaching practica that meet the requirements set by the College (see Paul and Schofield, 2010).

New models for instructional design

The ‘old’ best practice instructional system design model of analyze, design, develop, implement, and evaluate (ADDIE) has served distance education and online learning well, but it is proving to be too rigid and cumbersome to handle the new, dynamic web 2.0 tools, and learner-generated content.

As a result, we are beginning to see some interesting, high quality design models that are developed ‘on the fly’, in response to changing input from students, the arrival of a new technology mid-course, or breaking news in the subject area. This allows courses to appear more spontaneous and more authentic, grounded in the real world. These new developments are happening more in the area of training and vocational education than academia, although they have potential especially for professional programs.

One example comes from the Justice Institute of BC’s Emergency Management Program, which created materials not only for the formal courses in emergency management offered by JIBC, but also made these materials publicly available over the Internet and through mobile technology, such as iPhones and iPads. These resources enabled all services involved in emergency response during the Winter Olympics in Vancouver to have common and shared information about procedures, contacts and terminology. Although these materials were created ‘on the fly’ in a short period, they were also embedded within an overall course design philosophy, working to a project management model and a tight budget.

These new developments are still occurring in a minority of institutions, and are mainly the result of innovative instructors working with professional instructional designers and media specialists. However, there was definitely a spike in these activities during 2010, and it is expected that these moves to new course designs will increase during 2011, affecting both campus and distance education programs alike.

2. The Future is Mobile

‘The notion of class time as separate from non-class time will vanish’ The Futurist, November 2010

The Futurist argues that ‘The next generation of college students will be living wherever they want and taking many (if not all) of their courses online…Work and leisure will be interlaced throughout waking hours every day of the week, and student life will reflect the same trend. In this way, self-directed learning will be the most important taught skill of the future.’

As reported last year, the technology continues to improve. The major technology development during 2010 was the launch of Apple’s iPad. The iPad has yet to prove its worth as an educational tool. It is valuable for ‘consumption’, for example access to media and e-books (a key factor for students lugging textbooks across campus), but has more limitations on ‘production’, as it stands at the moment. Version 2 is expected in February, and it will be interesting to see if it includes more ‘production’ functionality, such as a camera, and software to facilitate multimedia creation. With the movement towards learner-generated content (see above) this is a major limitation of tablets so far for educational purposes. However, with Blackberry and Microsoft also moving into the tablet market, competition is increasing, so expect functionality of tablets to increase rapidly, and/or costs to drop substantially. Furthermore, phones, tablets and laptops are converging, so that, combined with cloud computing, the full functionality of a computer will eventually be available on the smallest devices.

Also there were further improvements in 2010 on the functionality of mobile phones, although educational applications remain tiny compared with other areas, such as entertainment and publishing.  One barrier to educational applications is the multiplicity of mobile operating systems; another is the lack of a clear model of design for mobile learning. The release of the HTML5 standard for web applications, which will provide a ‘standard’ platform for mobile applications, is unlikely before 2012. We will though see more attempts to provide unique educational designs and applications in 2011 that exploit the ‘affordances’ of mobile technology: immediacy, geographic location, convenience, multimedia, two-way communication, and user control.

Despite current limitations and barriers, the future of online learning is clearly in mobile technologies. Laptops and desktop PCs will remain necessary for specialized learning applications for the next few years, but in 2011 all educational institutions should be thinking of course design and teaching in terms of its transportability to mobile formats.

3. Open Educational Resources

The principle of making available online educational materials for free use for educational purposes is hard to argue with. Projects to develop open educational resources have received substantial funding from the Hewlett Foundation, and support from both the World Bank and the Commonwealth of Learning, as well as many institutions, such as MIT, Carnegie Mellon and the British Open University. However, it is a development that still falls far short of its promise.

Supply remains much greater than the demand. In other words, there’s lots of free educational content out there on the Internet, but not much use is being made of it, at least by the formal education system. (It is difficult to know how much use is made by students ‘unofficially’, i.e. not as a requirement or recommendation from their instructor.)

One reason is that although the content itself may be of the highest quality (such as MIT’s OpenCourseware), its format (in MIT’s case, 50 minute recorded lectures) is not appropriate for independent study. Another reason is that instructors often prefer to use their own material.

We have seen though some interesting shifts this year in the approach to developing open educational resources. First, Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative offers not just chunks of content such as lectures, but pre-packaged courses ‘based on the latest research into brain and cognitive science’ that can be adapted for local use by instructors (these are aimed mainly at the two-year college market). These are whole courses that include student activities, feedback to instructors and students, examination questions and recommended readings. This initiative is being widened into a consortium of institutions through the HP Catalyst Initiative. To date though, there is no information on the take-up of these programs, although it has generated a lot of research on the design of online materials.

Another development that is less spectacular and less well funded, but even more promising, is to make significant (but carefully chosen) elements of regular courses freely available over the web. (The Justice Institute of BC Emergency Response Program mentioned earlier is a good example.) However, this works best when there is a clear target audience with a need for that content. Another option is to make parts of a credit online course open to the public. UBC has done this with a graduate course (ETEC 522), where, as well as some of the core content, students’ final work (after assessment) is posted for all to see. It would be a short step from here for institutions to make sample contents of courses available over the web, to help students making choices about future courses or programs.

Open content is most likely to be used in a context where courses are explicitly designed around the concept of open content. This would not be limited to ‘official’ OER sites, or pre-selected open content. Instead, students would be encouraged, within certain guidelines and academic criteria, to search the Internet and to collect local data to create their own courses that would demonstrate their knowledge within a particular subject domain. However, until there are some strong design models that clearly demonstrate the benefits of open content, it is likely to remain an underused resource.

4. More Multimedia

Another strong development in online teaching we are likely to see during 2011 will be the increased development and use of multimedia materials, such as video, animations, simulations and, to a much lesser extent, games.

The use of video in particular is growing. It is now very cheap and easy to use video in short 3-4 minute clips to demonstrate processes, equipment or real life contexts, mainly to support direct online instruction, but also sometimes to encourage analysis of the video material by students themselves, or to enable learners to master a technique or process by repeated playing of the video clip as they practice. For instance, Vancouver Community College uses video clips to demonstrate repair processes for auto body work as part of a mainly online course for apprentices. These video clips are easy to make, with a camera recording the instructor (or a master craftsman) demonstrating the process.

A number of low cost tools now exist for creating, editing and publishing video. Low cost software such as Flash now enables quite high quality but simple animations to be developed at much lower cost than previously. Even high end simulations, such as 3D imaging, that used to cost millions of dollars, can now be done for under $150,000.

The main challenge here is not the technology or the cost, but getting instructors to think visually and hiring media producers and web developers with the skills to convert instructional ideas and abstract academic knowledge into concrete images. Again in the VCC example, industry standard video developed by the automobile industry is also used in the courses. Once good quality animations are created, there is a large potential market for their use.

Getting instructors to think visually

Simulations that require students to interact with digital materials and thus change the outcome are more expensive to develop, but again the cost is coming down as ‘generic’ software developed for games in the entertainment industry becomes available for re-use in other contexts. BCIT is creating more expensive simulations in partnership with Lockheed Martin for training aeronautical engineers and for health education.

However, developing multimedia materials is a high risk activity for a small or even medium sized institution. A collaborative media lab, shared by several small colleges, would provide economies of scale and sharing of knowledge.

5. Learning Analytics

Businesses have been increasingly using business intelligence software to dig down into the vast quantities of data they accumulate to enable front-line personnel to make better informed decisions.

Learning analytics is the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of data about learners and their contexts, for purposes of understanding and optimizing learning and the environments in which it occurs. In other words it is the application of business intelligence software to learning and learners.

Learning analytics is likely to be the next buzzword in online learning. Institutions accumulate a great deal of data about students. This is rarely used for the purposes of academic decision-making, mainly because it has up to now required a huge effort to analyze such data in terms of specific decisions, and also because of privacy reasons. However, learning analytics is focused mainly on aggregate data, and does not identify individual students. It provides information for instance on the changing demographics of students, such as age, gender, and location. It would allow, for instance, a program director to analyze the demographics of students in the program over the last five years. A move to older, better qualified, more part-time students might indicate the suitability of moving the course online, for instance. Learning analytics do this through software that ‘sits on top’ of the several different databases used in universities and colleges, such as student information systems, learning management systems, and financial systems. It provides the end-user with tools in the form of a dashboard on the desktop computer that allows the end-user to call up data and easily analyze it in the form of graphs, pie charts, or tables.

The main challenges to the use of learning analytics is making sure that data are collected and stored in ways that are useful for the kind of questions asked by end users (for instance, coding courses by the type of delivery, such as blended, hybrid and fully online), training end users such as faculty in the use of such tools, and ensuring that all concerns about privacy and data security are adequately addressed.

Athabasca University is organizing a conference on learning analytics at Banff between February 27th and March 1st, 2011.

6. Shared Services

The last development predicted during 2011 will be moves in some states and provinces toward shared software services between institutions. The rapid development of new technologies, the high cost of upgrading mission-critical software such as financial, student information and learning management systems, and the high risk of changing from one vendor product to another puts a particularly heavy burden on small to medium sized institutions. Moving to an open source system such as Moodle is difficult for small institutions with limited access to open source development staff; it would be more feasible through a shared services agreement with a large university.

The Alberta government is developing a plan, partly as a result of risk management, that will encourage sharing of services between its post-secondary educational institutions. In Pennsylvania, Drexel University has gradually accumulated the software services for a number of smaller colleges in the region. Thus as well as managing its own Banner student information system, it provides space and maintenance for several other colleges’ student information systems on a subscription basis. It now also provides hosting and maintenance for other institutions’ learning management systems (in this case, Blackboard.)

The alternative is outsourcing such services to private companies who would provide ‘Software as a Service’ (SaaS) through the Internet. For Canadian institutions, this is a very high risk activity though, since many of these services and servers are located outside the country, and are thus not subject to the same privacy and security requirements of Canadian institutions.


The growth of fully online learning (i.e. online distance education) continued at a rapid rate (over 20% last year), and increasing online enrollments will certainly continue through 2011. However, as the market approaches saturation, the rate of growth of fully online courses will level off, and this is likely to happen fairly soon. One reason for a slowdown in the growth of fully online courses, besides market saturation, will be the move to more flexible campus-based programs that will offer more options to part-time students and lifelong learners, rather than having to do a whole course or program online. However, market saturation for fully online learning is at least five to ten years away, and in the meantime we will see continued growth.

What I am hoping for 2011, though, is that this increase in the quantity of e-learning will start being accompanied by some major innovations in teaching, as instructors, instructional designers, and institutions begin to understand better the unique features of new technologies, and become more discriminating about the ‘affordances’ of both campus-based and online learning.

At some point soon, perhaps during 2011, we will see some institutions really looking at ways to increase cost-effectiveness through the use of ICTs, driven as much by their dire financial situation as by any ideal of being more efficient.

And lastly, there is likely to be something quite unexpected that will drive e-learning in a totally different direction – which is part of the fun of working in this field. So have an exciting and productive 2011.


Bates, Tony (2010) Blackboard acquires Elluminate and Wimba: the end of LMSs?

Mott, J. (2010) Envisioning the post-LMS era: the Open Learning Network Educause Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 1

Paul, C. and Schofield, A. (2010)  e-Portfolios for teacher candidates Vancouver BC: UBC Faculty of Education (retrieved from, December 6, 2010)