January 20, 2017

Scary tales of online learning and educational technology

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The Centre for Digital Media, Vancouver BC

The Centre for Digital Media, Vancouver BC

The Educational Technology Users Group (ETUG) of British Columbia held an appropriately Halloween-themed get together today called ‘The Little Workshop of Horrors’ at which participants were encouraged to share tales of failure and horror stories in the use of learning technologies.

This seemed to me a somewhat risky strategy but it actually worked really well. First the workshop was held in ‘the Hangar’, a large, covered space in (or rather beside) the Centre for Digital Media, a shared building used by UBC, Simon Fraser University, BCIT and the Emily Carr University of Art and Design. The Centre itself is a good example of collaboration and sharing in developing media-based programs, such as its Master of Digital Media. The Hangar lent itself to a somewhat spooky atmosphere, enhanced by a DJ who often accompanied presenters with ghoulish music.

Audrey’s Monsters

The workshop got off to an excellent start with a brilliant keynote from Audrey Watters on the Monsters of Educational Technology (The link will take you to her book on the subject). She identified a range of monsters (the examples are partly Audrey’s, partly mine):

  • Frankenstein’s monster that went wrong because its (hir?) master failed to provide it (em?) with love or social company (teaching machines?): in Audrey’s word’s ‘a misbegotten creature of a misbegotten science’,
  • vampires that suck the blood of students, e.g. by using their personal data (learning analytics?),
  • zombies, i.e. technologies or ed tech ideas that rise and die then rise again (e.g. technology will remove the need for schools, an idea that goes back to the early 1900s),
  • giants that become obsolete and die (Skinner, Merrill)
  • the Blob, which grows bigger and bigger and invades every nook and cranny (MOOCs?)
  • and the dragons, are the libertarian, free-market, Silicon-valley types that preach the ‘destruction’ and ‘re-invention’ of education.

Audrey Watters’ larger point is that if we are not careful, educational technology easily turns itself into a monster that drives out all humanity in the teaching and learning process. We need to be on constant watch, and, whenever we can, we need to take control away from large technology corporations whose ultimate purpose is not educational.

Not only was it a great, on topic, presentation, but it was also such a pleasure to meet at last Audrey in person, as I am a huge fan of her blog.

He was a monster, not because he was a machine, but because he wasn't loved


Then came the confessional, at which a series of speakers confessed their sins – or rather, classic failures – about educational technology, often in very funny ways. What was interesting though about most of the tales was that although there was a disaster, in most cases out of the disaster came a lot of good things. (As one speaker said, ‘Success is failing many times without losing your optimism’; or ‘ A sailor gets to know the sea only after he has waded ashore.’).

One presenter reported going to a university to ‘sell’ Blackboard but was so nervous that her presentation was so bad they ended up going with Canvas (you see what I mean about some good coming out of these disasters!) Another described how over 20 years she has been trying to move faculty into more interactive and engaging technology than learning management systems, yet here she is still spending most of her time supporting faculty using an LMS.

One talked about spending years trying to promote IMS-based learning objects, only to find that Google’s search engine made meta-data identification redundant. Revealingly, he felt he knew at the time that the meta-data approach to learning objects was too complex to work, but he had to do it because that was the only way he could get funding. More than one speaker noted that Canada in the past has spent millions of dollars on programs that focused heavily on software solutions (anyone remember EduSource?) but almost nothing on evaluating the educational applications of technology or on research on new or even old pedagogies.

Another spoke about the demise of a new university, the Technical University of British Columbia, that was a purpose-built, new university deliberately built around an “integrated learning” approach, combining heavy use of on-line learning with mixed face-to-face course structures – in 1999. However, by 2002 it had only about 800 FTEs, and a new incoming provincial government, desperate to save money and eager to diminish the previous government’s legacy, closed the university and transferred the students (but not the programs) to Simon Fraser University. Nevertheless, the legacy did live on, with many of the learning technology staff moving later into senior positions within the Canadian higher education system.

I see instructional designers, educational technologists or learning ecology consultants (which was a new title for me) as the Marine Corps of the educational world. They have seen many battles and have (mostly) survived. They have even learned how to occasionally win battles. That’s the kind of wisdom of which academic leaders and faculty and instructors should make much better use.

One participant had such a bad experience at Simon Fraser University that she thinks of it as 'the haunted house on the hill.'

One participant had such a bad ed tech experience at Simon Fraser University that she thinks of it as ‘the haunted house on the hill.’

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Acorns to oaks? British Columbia continues its progress with OERs

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From small acorns do great oaks grow.

From small acorns do great oaks grow.

BCcampus (2016) Back to school buzz: 2 million in student savings BCcampus Newsletter, September 16

BCcampus (2016) BCcampus approved, Hewlett and AVED funded OER grants in B.C. Victoria BC: BCcampus

BCcampus (2016) Open Textbook Stats Victoria BC: BCcampus

There’s a lot of talk these days about how hard it is to get faculty to adopt or use OERs. It’s certainly a struggle, but progress is being made in some jurisdictions, at least in Canada, through concerted and relatively well resourced efforts.

Open educational resources

BCcampus has recently announced on its website the result of its 2016 grant allocations for the creation of open educational resources (OER). Altogether 12 institutions received grants through a combination of funding through the Hewlett Foundation and the provincial Ministry of Advanced Education. These include:

  • health case studies (BCIT)
  • instructional videos to accompany an open biology textbook (Camosun College)
  • the creation of 3D images and videos to accompany Common Core Trades Open Textbooks (Camosun College)
  • open course packs for core curriculum developed by several BC colleges (College of the Rockies + other BC colleges)
  • creation of an open textbook on human resources for business studies (College of New Caledonia)
  • use of small grants to  help implement institution-wide OER strategies (Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Simon Fraser University, University of Northern BC)
  • ancillary resources for open textbooks  (Physical Geology, Thompson Rivers University; Contemporary Women; and Teaching in a Digital Age, University of Victoria)
  • case studies on sustainability and environmental ethics (UBC)
  • virtual reality and augmented reality field trips (UBC)
  • redesign of two physics courses to integrate open textbooks as the principal content sources for student learning (UBC)
  • creation or adaptation of three open textbooks (aboriginal studies, Greek and Latin for scientists, microeconomics: University of Victoria)

I was particularly interested to learn that the University of Victoria is building ancillary resources for my online, open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. Who knew? I will make another announcement once these are developed.

Open textbooks

BCcampus now has a new web page that provides continuously updated information about the adoption of open textbooks in British Columbia. Some key data (as of today, September 25, 2016):

  • there are 163 open textbooks in the BCcampus collection (click here for a full list)
  • to date, BC’s open textbook project has saved students over $2 million in textbook costs
  • there are slightly more than 17,000 students using open textbooks (out of a total of 310,00 or just over 5%)
  • there almost 200 faculty who are known to have adopted open textbooks in the province (out of about 8,000 – about 2.5%)
  • 31 institutions have adopted at least one open textbook (covering almost every public post-secondary education institution in BC).


Guess what – more than twice as many students proportionally are using open textbooks than faculty. Although adoption is growing rapidly, it is starting from a very low base, less than 5% of courses. Nevertheless it is the most prestigious universities (UBC and UVic) in the province that are the most active this year. Great progress has been made by BCcampus in a short time (four years since the first activity) but there is still a long way to go.

Now Ontario, through eCampus Ontario, is getting into the development of OER (their new Director, David Porter, was previously the Director of BCcampus). Being a much larger province, we can expect considerably more OER being developed over the next year in Ontario.

Nevertheless from my point of view, this is a screamingly slow development for what should be a no-brainer for post-secondary education: free, online, peer-reviewed textbooks and open resources that save students – and could save institutions – big money. If BC is now a leader in this area, God help the rest of higher education. But from small acorns do great oaks grow.

ISBN and citation for ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’

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Why do you need an ISBN when your book is entirely digital and open access? Image: Open Grid Scheduler, Flickr.com, 2016

Why do you need an ISBN when your book is entirely digital and open access?
Image: Open Grid Scheduler, Flickr.com, 2016


I have now navigated Library and Archives Canada’s system to get ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers) issued for Teaching in a Digital Age and the French version, L’enseignement à l’ère numérique.

One issue was identifying the publisher. The books are hosted by both BCcampus and Contact North, and Contact North did the French translation, but however I own the copyright through the CC-BY-NC Creative Commons license. As it is a self-published book, it seems that I am the publisher. However, it is confusing to have the same person as both author and publisher, so I have registered my consultancy company, ‘Tony Bates Associates Ltd’, as the publisher, as this will not affect the copyright.


So for citing purposes, I suggest the following:

Bates, A.W. (2015) Teaching in a Digital Age: Guidelines for Designing Teaching and Learning Vancouver BC: Tony Bates Associates Ltd. ISBN: 978-0-9952692-0-0.

(This is a general ISBN. The ISBN for the pdf version is 978-0-9952692-1-7 and for the epub version it is 978-0-9952692-3-1)

Bates, A.W. (2016) L’enseignement à l’ère numérique: Des Balises pour l’Enseignement et l’Apprentissage Vancouver BC: Tony Bates Associates Ltd. ISBN: 978-0-9952692-1-7. (The French version is only available as a pdf).

However, if you have used another citation for my book previously, it should be OK so long as it conforms to one of the citation standards such as the APA. If there are any librarians reading this who have better advice, please use the comment box below.

As new translations for the book are published, I will add these to this web page.

Why bother?

Good question. I resisted for over a year getting an ISBN, since all you need to access the book is the url, but I had academics stating that it was university policy that they could not require students to access any publication without an ISBN (really!), and students telling me that supervisors were requiring them to give the ISBN when citing the book.

There is also a legal reason. Any electronic book published in Canada, whether self-published or not, must be deposited with Library and Archives Canada, and to do that you need an ISBN. I didn’t know that until I asked for an ISBN for the book. For more about Legal Deposit, see http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/services/Pages/publishers-portal.aspx

The third is to increase accessibility. The book is now listed in Library and Archives Canada so can be downloaded also from their site, in either pdf or epub format. University and college librarians in particular access publications through this site.

So it was a bit of a bureaucratic hassle, but ISBNs are automatically issued through the Library and Archives Canada web site, once you are registered, and uploading copies to the Electronic Collection is relatively straightforward. Just remember to ask for enough ISBNs when registering a publication to ensure that there is an ISBN for every version of the book.

Over to you

Any comments, corrections or suggestions welcome.

Online learning for beginners: 7. Why not just record my lectures?

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Why not just put your lecture capture lessons online? Image: MediaCore, 2014

Why not just put your lecture capture lessons online?
Image: MediaCore, 2014

This is the seventh in a series of a dozen blog posts aimed at those new to online learning or thinking of possibly doing it. The other six are:

I gave a short answer to ‘Why not just record my lectures?’ in the fourth post in this series, but it deserves a fuller answer. It is natural that faculty and instructors want to use an approach to teaching that is not only familiar and comfortable, but has been used for hundreds of years, so has passed the test of time. However, there are several reasons why recorded classroom lectures are not a good idea for online learning, at least not as the main form of delivering online courses.

Start with the students

When designing online courses, you need to start by thinking about the context of the online learner. An online learner is usually studying in an isolated situation, without other students or the instructor physically present. There are many ways to overcome the isolation of the online learner (dealt with in later posts), but giving them recordings of 50 minute classroom presentations is not one of them.

In a classroom context there are many interactive cues or contexts – such as the response of other students, the look on students faces – that result in slight but important adjustments on the instructor’s part, and which help maintain student concentration and interest. Even if a live class was present at the time of the recording, these cues are usually lacking when students are studying a recorded video at home, in the library, or on the bus.

There is also research evidence that suggests for every hour of presentation, online students need to spend between two to three hours of additional time going over the recording, stopping and starting, to ensure they have fully understood. This is a good benefit of recording compared to even a live lecture, but it also ups the student workload, especially if there is other work to be done, such as readings, assignments, and practical work. Managing student workload is a key factor in ensuring high completion rates for online students.

Lastly, even when recorded lectures are strongly integrated with other activities, such as subsequent classroom discussions or assignments, students often skimp on the video preparation, either skimming the video or not watching it at all. The more isolated the student, the more likely this is to happen.

The changing nature of learning in a digital age

One of the main reasons for moving to online learning is to help develop the knowledge and skills needed in a knowledge-based society and particularly in a digital age. These new forms of knowledge – such as Internet-based sources and rapidly changing content – and in particular the skills required to master these forms of knowledge, such as knowledge management, independent learning and use of digital media – are not handled well through lectures. In particular the lecturer is doing the knowledge management, the modelling and the organization of content, not the students.

In other words lectures require a more passive approach from the learner which is not suitable for isolated learners who need to be active and engaged in their learning, as much for motivational reasons as for developing the knowledge and skills needed. (The same could also be true for classroom based students, incidentally.) Indeed, one of the principle reasons for moving to online teaching is to move away from the limitations of lecture-based classes, and to exploit the benefits of online study.

Video as a teaching medium

Asking ‘Why can’t I move my lectures online?’ is really the wrong question. It assumes that what I’m doing in the classroom will work equally well on video for online students. The right question though should be: ‘What is the best use of video for students studying online?’

In media terms, a recorded lecture is mainly a talking head, with, if students are lucky, textual illustration (e.g. Powerpoint slides). There has been a great deal of research on the best mix of voice, images, and text in video for teaching (see, for instance Mayer, 2009). To incorporate the factors that make the use of video effective for learning, the type of lecture usually delivered in a classroom would need to be considerably redesigned to make it more effective for remote learners.

In addition, there are many other, more creative and relevant ways than lectures for using video for teaching, such as demonstrations of equipment, experiments or processes, animation, and examples drawn from the real world to illustrate abstract concepts.

Successful uses of video for lectures

It could be argued that MOOCs, the Khan Academy, and TED talks are all examples of the successful use of lectures on video. However, they are not the typical classroom lecture delivered three times a week over a 13 week semester.

I have heard instructors say that their MOOC lectures are much better than their classroom lectures, because they put more time into the presentation. MOOC developers have learned to adapt the 50 minute lecture to better fit the online format, with shorter, 10-15 minutes videos, and shorter courses. This is fine for non-credit programming but does not fit the Carnegie-based 13 week semester model for credit programs. Costs for producing successful MOOC lectures run over $100,000 a lecture, production costs that are not sustainable for moving large numbers of classroom lectures online.

Sal Khan is an inspired lecturer who uses voice over combined with on-screen digital notes. His technique is not the same as recording a classroom lecture with whiteboard notes. For a start, the audio and screen quality is much higher, but it is also the technique of constructing teaching in appropriate chunks of recorded time that requires considerable thought and preparation. This is not to say that classroom lecturers could not do this, but it would require once again redesigning the classroom lecture.

Lastly, TED talks require a great deal of preparation and rehearsal, and again are much shorter than the typical classroom lecture.

So, yes, recorded video can work online, but it needs to be designed specifically to suit the mode of delivery. There are also other ways to design online learning that do not necessarily require so much work, and other uses of video for teaching that are more appropriate.

What are the alternatives?

Too many to list them all here, but one is to use an online learning management system, such as Blackboard, Moodle or D2L. These provide a weekly structure for ‘lessons’, organize content in the form of text or online readings, provide a forum for discussion on course topics, provide regular online activities and assignments, and could include links to short videos. Indeed, a short introductory video to a topic by the instructor is often a good idea, providing a personal link between you and your students.

I will discuss other possible online learning environments in later posts.


  1. A talking head delivering 50 minute lectures is in general not a good way to teach online learners.
  2. It is better in the long run to sit down with an instructional designer and build a course from scratch that is appropriate for an online learning environment, rather than try to force your classroom teaching online.
  3. Video is a good medium to use for online learning, but only if it exploits its unique pedagogical benefits.
  4. Talking heads are therefore useful only in particular contexts, and not as a way to deliver a whole course or program online.
  5. Developing quality video for online learning requires a professional approach involving lecturer, instructional designer and a multimedia or video producer.

Follow up

For a critique of the limitations of classroom lectures based on research by Donald Bligh, see Chapter 3.3 Transmissive lectures: learning by listening in Teaching in a Digital Age.

For a good summary of best design principles for developing video/multimedia for learning, based on research on the learning effectiveness of video, see the University of British Columbia’s Design Principles for Multimedia.

For a discussion of the pedagogical potential of video, see Chapter 7.4.2, Presentational features in Teaching in a Digital Age

If you want to follow up on the research and theory on which this post is based see:

  • Bligh, D. (2000) What’s the Use of Lectures? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  • Mayer, R. E. (2009). Multimedia Learning (2nd ed). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • McKeachie, W. and Svinicki, M. (2006) McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research and Theory for College and University Teachers Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin

Up next

Won’t online learning be more work?

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or plain disagree, please use the comment box below.

EDEN Research Workshop, October, 2016

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The city of Olenburg Image: © Marcus Thielen, 2015

The city of Oldenburg
Image: © Marcus Thielen, 2015

What: Forging New Pathways of research and innovation in open and distance learning: reaching from the roots

The Ninth EDEN Research Workshop in Oldenburg, Germany, will bring together researchers from all walks of life and provide a platform for engaging in discussion and debate, exchanging research ideas, and presenting new developments in ODL, with the goal of creating dialogues and forming opportunities for research collaboration.

Workshop Themes:

  • emerging distance education systems and theories
  • management and organizational models and approaches
  • evolving practices in technology-enhanced learning and teaching


  • Olaf Zawacki-Richter, Carl von Ossietzki University, Oldenburg
  • Inge de Waard, The Open University, UK
  • Adnan Qayyum, Penn State university, USA
  • Som Naidu, Monash University, Australia
  • Paul Prinsloo, University of South Africa
  • George Veletsianos, Royal Roads University, Canada
  • Isa Jahnke, University of Missouri, USA

Types of sessions:

  • paper presentations
  • hands-on workshops
  • posters
  • demonstrations
  • ‘synergy’ sessions (to share and discuss EU projects)
  • training sessions

Where: Carl von Ossietzki University, Oldenburg, Germany. Oldenburg is a charming city in north east Germany between Bremen and Groningen.

When: 4-7 October, 2016

Who: The European Distance and e-Learning Network and the Centre for Distance Education, Carl von Ossietzki University. The university is a partner with the University of Maryland University College in offering a fully online Master in Distance Education and e-Learning, which has been running for many years. The Centre for Distance Education has published 15 books on distance education and e-learning in its ASF series.

How: Registration opens mid-August. For more details on registration, fees and accommodation go to the conference web site

Comment: EDEN Research Workshops are one of my favourite professional development activities. They bring together online learning researchers from all over Europe, and it is a remarkably efficient way to keep up to date not only with the latest research but also the technology trends in open and distance education that are getting serious attention. The conference is usually small (about 100-200 participants) and very well focused on practical aspects of research and practice in online learning and distance education.