February 28, 2015

What do we mean by quality when teaching in a digital age?

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© Insights, 2012

© Insights, 2012

Before I start on my nine steps to quality learning for my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, I have needed to ‘clear the decks’ about what we mean by quality. I thought this bit might be useful to share, as quality is a very slippery concept at the best of times.

The aim of this chapter is to provide some practical guidelines for teachers and instructors to ensure quality teaching in a digital age. Before I can do this, however, it is necessary to clarify what is meant by ‘quality’ in education, because I am using ‘quality’ here in a very specific way.

Definitions

Probably there is no other topic in education which generates so much discussion and controversy as ‘quality’. Many books have been written on the topic, but I will cut to the chase and give my definition of quality up-front. For the purposes of this book, quality is defined as:

teaching methods that successfully help learners develop the knowledge and skills they will require in a digital age.

This of course is the short answer to the question. A longer answer means looking, at least briefly, at:

  • institutional and degree accreditation
  • internal (academic) quality assurance processes
  • differences in quality assurance between traditional classroom teaching and online and distance education
  • the relationship between quality assurance processes and learning outcomes
  • ‘quality assurance fit for purpose': meeting the goals of education in a digital age.

This will then provide the foundations for my recommendations for quality teaching that will follow in this chapter.

Institutional and degree accreditation

Most governments act to protect consumers in the education market by ensuring that institutions are properly accredited and the qualifications they award are valid and are recognised as of being of ‘quality.’ However, the manner in which institutions and degrees are accredited varies a great deal. The main difference is between the USA and virtually any other country.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Network for Education Information states in its description of accreditation and quality assurance in the USA:

Accreditation is the process used in U.S. education to ensure that schools, postsecondary institutions, and other education providers meet, and maintain, minimum standards of quality and integrity regarding academics, administration, and related services. It is a voluntary process based on the principle of academic self-governance. Schools, postsecondary institutions and programs (faculties) within institutions participate in accreditation. The entities which conduct accreditation are associations comprised of institutions and academic specialists in specific subjects, who establish and enforce standards of membership and procedures for conducting the accreditation process.

Both the federal and state governments recognize accreditation as the mechanism by which institutional and programmatic legitimacy are ensured. In international terms, accreditation by a recognized accrediting authority is accepted as the U.S. equivalent of other countries’ ministerial recognition of institutions belonging to national education systems.

In other words, in the USA, accreditation and quality assurance is effectively self-regulated by the educational institutions and faculty through their control of accreditation agencies, although the government does have some ‘weapons of enforcement’, mainly through the withdrawal of student financial aid for students at any institution that the U.S. Department of Education deems to be failing to meet standards.

In many other countries, government has the ultimate authority to accredit institutions and approve degrees, although in countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom, this is often exercised by arm’s length agencies appointed by government, but consisting mainly of representatives from the various institutions within the system. These bodies have a variety of names, but Degree Quality Assurance Board is a typical title.

However, more important than the formal lines of responsibility for quality is how the accrediting agencies actually operate. Usually, once a degree program is approved, there is little follow-up or monitoring afterwards, unless formal complaints are subsequently made about the quality of the program, although many institutions now voluntarily review programs every five years or so. Also, once an institution has been accredited, the accreditation agency may delegate back to the institution the approval of it own degree programs, providing that it has an internal process in place for assuring quality, although where government is formally responsible, new degrees may still come to an accrediting agency, to ensure there is no duplication within the system, that there is a defined market for the program, or where approval to deviate from government guidelines on fees may be requested. Nevertheless, mainly to ensure academic freedom from direct government interference, universities in particular have a large degree of autonomy in most economically advanced countries for determining ‘quality’ in programming.

However, in recent years, some regulatory agencies such as the United Kingdom’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education have adopted formal quality assurance processes based on practices that originated in industry. The U.K. QAA’s Quality Code for Higher Education which aims to guide universities on what the QAA is looking for runs to several hundred pages. Chapter B3 on Learning and Teaching is 25 pages long and has seven indicators of quality. Indicator 4 is typical:

Higher education providers assure themselves that everyone involved in teaching or supporting student learning is appropriately qualified, supported and developed.

Many institutions as a result of pressure from external agencies have therefore put in place formal quality assurance processes over and beyond the normal academic approval processes (see Clarke-Okah et al., 2014, for a typical, low-cost example).

Internal quality assurance

It can be seen then that the internal processes for ensuring quality programs within an institution are particularly important. Although again the process can vary considerably between institutions, at least in universities the process is fairly standard. A proposal for a new degree will usually originate from a group of faculty/instructors within a department. The proposal will be discussed and amended at departmental and/or Faculty meetings, then once approved will go to the university senate for final approval. The administration in the form of the Provost’s Office will usually be involved, particularly where resources, such as new appointments, are required.

Although this is probably an over-generalisation, significantly the proposal will contain information about who will teach the course and their qualifications to teach it, the content to be covered within the program (often as a list of courses with short descriptions), a set of required readings, and usually something about how students will be assessed. Increasingly, such proposals may also include broad learning outcomes for the program.

If there is a proposal for courses within a program or the whole program to be delivered fully online, it is likely that the proposal will come under intense internal scrutiny. What is unlikely to be included in a proposal though is what methods of teaching will be used. This is usually considered the responsibility of individual faculty members. It is this aspect of quality with which this chapter is concerned.

Lastly, some institutions require every program to be reviewed after five or more years of operation, or at the discretion of the senior administration. Again whether and how this is done varies considerably. One common approach is for an internal review process, with an internal evaluation report by a committee set up by the department offering the program, followed by a review of the internal committee’s report by external assessors. This review may or (more frequently) may not lead to significant changes in a program, but this will depend on the instructors responsible for teaching the program agreeing to implement any recommended changes. Less frequently, where enrolment for a program has declined to unacceptable levels or where external complaints about a program have been received, the Vice President Academic may call for an external review of the program, in which case anything is possible, up to and including closure of the program.

Jung and Latchem (2102), in a review of quality assessment processes in a large number of online and distance education institutions around the world, make the following important points about quality assurance processes within institutions:

  • focus on outcomes as the leading measure of quality
  • take a systemic approach to quality assurance
  • see QA as a process of continuous improvement
  • move the institution from external controls to an internal culture of quality
  • poor quality has very high costs so investment in quality is worthwhile.

In particular, Butcher and Wilson-Strydom (2013) warn:

you should not assume that creating quality assurance structures… automatically improves quality….Institutional quality assurance structures and processes are important, but beware of making them an exercise in compliance for accountability, rather than a process of learning and self-improvement that really improves quality.

There are many guidelines for quality traditional classroom teaching. Perhaps the most well know are those of Chickering and Gamson (1987), based on an analysis of 50 years of research into best practices in teaching. They argue that good practice in undergraduate education:

  1. Encourages contact between students and faculty
  2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students.
  3. Encourages active learning.
  4. Gives prompt feedback.
  5. Emphasizes time on task.
  6. Communicates high expectations.
  7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

Online courses and programs

Because online learning was new and hence open to concern about its quality, there have also been many guidelines, best practices and quality assurance criteria created and applied to online programming. All these guidelines and procedures have been derived from the experience of previously successful online programs, best practices in teaching and learning, and research and evaluation of online teaching and learning.

Some degree quality assurance boards (such as the QAA in the UK and PEQAB in Ontario) have put in place specific ‘benchmarks’ for online courses. A comprehensive list of online quality assurance standards, organizations and research on online learning can be found in Appendix 3. Graham et al. (2001) applied Chickering and Gamson’s seven principles for face-to-face teaching to the evaluation of four online courses from a mid-western university in the USA, and adapted these principles for online learning.

Thus ensuring quality in online learning is not rocket science. There is plenty of evidence of what works and what doesn’t, which will be examined in more detail in this chapter. There is no need to build a bureaucracy around this, but there does need to be some mechanism, some way of calling institutions when they fail to meet these standards. However, we should also do the same for campus-based teaching. As more and more already accredited (and ‘high quality’) campus-based institutions start moving into hybrid learning, the establishment of quality in the online learning elements of programs will become even more important.

Thus there are plenty of evidence-based guidelines for ensuring quality in teaching, both face-to-face and online. The main challenge then is to ensure that teachers and instructors are aware of these best practices and that institutions have processes in place to ensure that guidelines for quality teaching are implemented and followed.

Quality assurance, innovation and learning outcomes

It may have been noted that most QA processes are front-loaded, i.e. they look at inputs – such as the academic qualifications of faculty, or the processes to be adopted for effective teaching, such as clear learning objectives – rather than outputs, such as what students have actually learned. They also tend to be backward-looking, that is, they focus on past best practices.

This is particularly important for evaluating new teaching approaches. Butcher and Hoosen (2014) state:

The quality assurance of post-traditional higher education is not straightforward, because openness and flexibility are primary characteristics of these new approaches, whereas traditional approaches to quality assurance were designed for teaching and learning within more tightly structured frameworks.

 However, Butcher and Hoosen (2014) go on to say that:

fundamental judgements about quality should not depend on whether education is provided in a traditional or post-traditional manner …the growth of openness is unlikely to demand major changes to quality assurance practices in institutions. The principles of good quality higher education have not changed…. Quality distance education is a sub-set of quality education…Distance education should be subject to the same quality assurance mechanisms as education generally.’

Such arguments though offer a particular challenge for teaching in a digital age, where it is argued that learning outcomes need to include the development of skills such as independent learning, facility in using social media for communication, and knowledge management, skills that have not been explicitly identified in the past. Quality assurance processes are not usually tied to specific types of learning outcomes, but are more closely linked to general performance measures such as course completion rates, time to degree completion and grades based on past learning goals.

Furthermore, we have already seen in Chapters 9 and 10 that new media and new methods of teaching are emerging that have not been around long enough to be subject to analysis of best practices. A too rigid view of quality assessment based on past practices could have serious negative implications for innovation in teaching and for meeting newly emerging learning needs. ‘Best practice’ may need occasionally to be challenged, so new approaches can be experimented with and evaluated.

Quality assurance: fit for purpose in a digital age

Maxim Jean-Louis, the President of Contact North, at a presentation in 2010 to the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, made a very useful distinction about different ways of looking at quality in education:

  • Quality as ‘Excellence’- a definition that sets abstract goals for institutions and academic communities to always striving to be the best, mainly taken as having elitist undertones. In post-secondary education this could mean winning Nobel prizes, attraction of research funds or the “best” faculty as measured by research output and teaching evaluations. The drawback here is that this tends to also exclude the work of the ‘further education’ sectors, and is not applied equally between disciplines (citation counts do not exist for historians and many other subjects).
  • Quality as ‘Meeting a pre-determined standard’- a definition that requires only a given standard to be met, e.g. a minimum grade, basic competency, the ability to read, write, use a computer, etc. [It might also include competencies and skills, degree completion rates, time to degree completion, etc.] The drawback of this is that setting and measuring this ‘standard’ is difficult at best and idealistic at worst.
  • Quality as ‘fitness for purpose’ - in this construction of quality, we have to decide the extent to which the service or product meets the goals set – does this course or program do what it says it was going to do? Such a construction of quality allows institutions/sectors to define goals themselves according to their mandate and concentrates on meeting the needs of their customers (whether this be upgrading learners, graduate researchers, industry, etc.).

Quality assurance processes must address the increasing diversity of our educational systems. Distance education organizations are not the same as elite traditional universities and shouldn’t try to be. This would mean looking for different measures of quality in the Open University, for instance, than in Cambridge University. Neither one is necessarily better (depending on what they are trying to achieve), but the learning experience ought to be different, even though the intended learning outcomes may be similar; this will mean different design criteria but not necessarily different criteria for assessing the quality of the learning.

In the meantime, much more attention needs to be directed at what campus-based institutions are doing when they move to hybrid or online learning. Are they following best practices, or even better, developing innovative, better teaching methods? The design of xMOOCs and the high drop-out rates of many new two year colleges new to online learning in the USA suggest they are not.

This means that different types of institution will and should evaluate quality differently. If the goal or purpose is to develop the knowledge and skills that learners will need in a digital age, then this is the ‘standard’ by which quality should be assessed, while at the same time taking into account what we already know about general best practices in teaching. The recommendations for quality teaching in a digital age that follow in this chapter are based on these principles.

Over to you

There is so much I wanted to write here about the stupidity of the current system of institutional accreditation and internal quality assurance processes, especially but not exclusively in the United Kingdom, but this section is meant as an introduction to practical guidelines for teaching and learning. So I’ve tried to be uncharacteristically restrained in writing this section. But feedback is even more welcome than usual.

1. (a) First, are there any incorrect facts in this section? This is a large and complex topic and it is easy to get things wrong.

(b) Have I left out anything really important about assessing quality in teaching and learning?

2. One problem with this topic is that it tends to gravitate between two polarised positions: those who believe in absolute truth and those who are relativists. Absolute truthers believe that there is a God-given set of ‘quality’ standards that are set primarily by elite institutions that everyone else should strive to meet. Relativists (like myself) believe that quality is in the eye of the beholder; it all depends on what your goals are. Hence my definition of quality is set among the rather limited goal in one way – and extremely ambitious in another – of developing teaching methods that will help learners develop the knowledge and skills they will need in a digital age. So: any views on my definition of quality? Is it fit for purpose?

3. What do you think of the current system of (a) institutional accreditation and (b) internal quality assurance processes?

My own view is that institutional accreditation is definitely needed to protect against really incompetent or downright dishonest organisations, but, depending on the jurisdiction, it is very much an insider’s process and not very transparent, and while current accreditation processes may set minimum standards it certainly doesn’t do much to improve quality in the system.

Similarly, internal quality assurance processes are far too cosy and protect the status quo. The internal program approval processes are based again on peer review of a very limited kind, with often ‘I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine’ approach to program approval. I’ve been on a number of program reviews as an external reviewer, but rarely see any significant changes, despite sometimes scathing reviews from the externals.

And as for formal QA processes, they are the kiss of death for quality, tangling faculty and administrators in incredibly bureaucratic processes without dealing with the real issues around quality teaching and learning.

Of course, all these practices are in the name of protecting academic freedom, which is important – but surely better processes can be derived for improving quality without threatening academic freedom.

4. So lastly, is it wise for me to restrain myself from adding these types of comments in the book – or will I muddy the waters of what is to come if I do?

References and further reading

Butcher, N. and Wilson-Strydom, M. (2013) A Guide to Quality in Online Learning Dallas TX: Academic Partnerships

Butcher, N. and Hoosen, S. (2014) A Guide to Quality in Post-traditional Online Higher Education Dallas TX: Academic Partnerships

Chickering, A., and Gamson, Z. (1987) ‘Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education’ AAHE Bulletin, March 1987.

Clarke-Okah, W. et al. (2014) The Commonwealth of Learning Review and Improvement Model for Higher Education Institutions Vancouver BC: Commonwealth of Learning

Graham, C. et al. (2001) Seven Principles of Effective Teaching: A Practical Lens for Evaluating Online Courses The Technology Source, March/April

Jung, I. and Latchem, C. (2012) Quality Assurance and Accreditation in Distance Education and e-Learning New York/London: Routledge

10 key takeaways about differences between classroom, blended, online and open learning

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What makes face-to-face teaching pedagogically unique - if anything?

Every teacher or instructor needs to decide where on the continuum a particular course or program should be

Lucky readers: you get a bonus! This is really a brief summary of all of the ten previous posts on this topic, which constitute Chapter 10 of my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age:

Key takeaways

1. There is a continuum of technology-based learning, from ‘pure’ face-to-face teaching to fully online programs. Every teacher or instructor needs to decide where on the continuum a particular course or program should be.

2. We do not have good research evidence or theories to make this decision, although we do have growing experience of the strengths and limitations of online learning. What is particularly missing is an evidence-based analysis of the strengths and limitations of face-to-face teaching when online learning is also available.

3. In the absence of good theory, I have suggested four factors to consider when deciding on mode of delivery, and in particular the different uses of face-to-face and online learning in blended courses:

  • your preferred teaching strategy, in terms of methods and learning outcomes
  • student characteristics and needs
  • the pedagogical and presentational requirements of the subject matter, in terms of (a) content and (b) skills
  • the resources available to an instructor (including the instructor’s time).

4. The move to blended or hybrid learning in particular means rethinking the use of the campus and the facilities needed fully to support learning in a hybrid mode.

5. Open educational resources offer many benefits but they need to be well designed and embedded within a rich learning environment to be effective.

6. The increasing availability of OER, open textbooks, open research and open data means that in future, almost all academic content will be open and freely accessible over the Internet.

7. As a result, students will increasingly look to institutions for learning support and help with the development of skills needed in a digital age rather than with the delivery of content. This will have major consequences for the role of teachers/instructors and the design of courses.

8. OER and other forms of open education will lead to increased modularization and disaggregation of learning services, which are needed to respond to the increasing diversity of learner needs in a digital age.

9. MOOCs are essentially a dead end with regard to providing learners who do not have adequate access to education with high quality qualifications. The main value of MOOCs is in providing opportunities for non-formal education and supporting communities of practice.

10. OER, MOOCs, open textbooks and other digital forms of open-ness are important in helping to widen access to learning opportunities, but ultimately these are enhancements rather than a replacement for a well-funded public education system, which remains the core foundation for enabling equal access to educational opportunities.

Next

Chapter 10 on Modes of Delivery and Open Education is now published.

Chapter 11 will be on design strategies for ensuring high quality learning. Since it is based on an earlier series of blog posts called Nine steps to quality online learning, I will not be publishing blog posts on the book version. This should be ready by the end of next week.

I will however publish blog posts on Chapter 12, the concluding chapter, as I develop it. Chapter 12 will discuss issues around faculty development/training, institutional strategies for teaching and learning, and likely developments for teaching and learning in the near future. (Any other suggestions for topics for this last chapter will be much appreciated, as I need to focus on key issues that have wide interest that have not been covered elsewhere in the book.)

I will also start returning gradually to reviewing new developments, research articles, conferences, etc., as before I started on the open textbook project.

A future vision for OER and online learning

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For each chapter of my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, I am developing imaginary but hopefully realistic scenarios. In this scenario, developed as a closing to my chapter on ‘Modes of Delivery and Open Education’, I look at how modularization could lead both a wider range of access to credit courses and more open use of learning materials.

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Figure 10.1 The Hart River, Yukon. Image: © www.protectpeel.ca, CC BY-NC

Figure 10.1.F The Hart River, Yukon.
Image: © www.protectpeel.ca, CC BY-NC

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Research faculty in the Faculties of Land Management and Forestry at the (mythical) University of Western Canada developed over a number of years a range of ‘learning artefacts’, digital graphics, computer models and simulations about watershed management, partly as a consequence of research conducted by faculty, and partly to generate support and funding for further research.

At a faculty meeting several years ago, after a somewhat heated discussion, faculty members voted to make these resources openly available for re-use for educational purposes under a Creative Commons license that requires attribution and prevents commercial use without specific written permission from the copyright holders, who in this case are the faculty responsible for developing the artefacts. What swayed the vote is that the majority of the faculty actively involved in the research wanted to make these resources more widely available. The agencies responsible for funding the work that lead to the development of the artefacts (mainly national research councils) welcomed the move to makes these artefacts more widely available as open educational resources.

Initially, the researchers just put the graphics and simulations up on the research group’s web site. It was left to individual faculty members to decide whether to use these resources in their teaching. Over time, faculty started to introduce these resources into a range of on-campus undergraduate and graduate courses.

After a while, though, word seemed to get out about these OER. The research faculty began to receive e-mails and phone calls from other researchers around the world. It became clear that there was a network or community of researchers in this field who were creating digital materials as a result of their research, and it made sense to share and re-use materials from other sites. This eventually led to an international web ‘portal’ of learning artefacts on watershed management.

The researchers also started to get calls from a range of different agencies, from government ministries or departments of environment, local environmental groups, First Nations/aboriginal bands, and, occasionally, major mining or resource extraction companies, leading to some major consultancy work for the faculty in the department. At the same time, the faculty were able to attract further research funding from non-governmental agencies such as the Nature Conservancy and some ecological groups, as well as from their traditional funding source, the national research councils, to develop more OER.

By this time, instructors had access to a fairly large amount of OER. There were already two fourth and fifth level fully online courses built around the OER that were being offered successfully to undergraduate and graduate students.

A proposal was therefore put forward to create initially a fully online post-graduate certificate program on watershed management, built around existing OER, in partnership with a university in the USA and another one in Sierra Leone. This certificate program was to be self-funding from tuition fees, with the tuition fees for the 25 Sierra Leone students to be initially covered by an international aid agency. The Dean, after a period of hard negotiation, persuaded the university administration that the tuition fees from the certificate program should go directly to the two Faculties whose staff were teaching the program.From these funds, the departments would hire additional tenured faculty to teach or backfill for the certificate, and the Faculties would pay 25 per cent of the tuition revenues to the university as overheads.

This decision was made somewhat easier by a fairly substantial grant from Foreign Affairs Canada to make the certificate program available in English and French to Canadian mining and resource extraction companies with contracts and partnerships in African countries.

Although the certificate program was very successful in attracting students from North America, Europe and New Zealand, it was not taken up very well in Africa beyond the partnership with the university in Sierra Leone, although there was a lot of interest in the OER and the issues raised in the certificate courses. After two years of running the certificate, then, the Faculties made two major decisions:

  • another three courses and a research project would be added to the certificate courses, and this would be offered as a fully cost recoverable online master in land and water systems. This would attract greater participation from managers and professionals in African countries in particular, and provide a recognised qualification that many of the certificate students were requesting
  • drawing on the large network of external experts now involved one way or another with the researchers, the university would offer a series of MOOCs on watershed management issues, with volunteer experts from outside the university being invited to participate and provide leadership in the MOOCs. The MOOCs would be able to draw on the existing OER.

Five years later, the following outcomes were recorded by the Dean of one of the faculties at an international conference on sustainability:

  • the online master’s program had doubled the total number of graduate students across the two faculties
  • the master’s program was fully cost-recoverable from tuition fees
  • there were 120 graduates a year from the master’s program
  • the degree completion rate was 64 per cent
  • six new tenured faculty has been hired, plus another six post-doctoral research faculty
  • several thousand students had registered and paid for at least one course in the certificate or master’s program, of which 45 per cent were from outside Canada
  • over 100,000 students had taken the MOOCs, almost half from developing countries
  • there were now over 1,000 hours of OER on watershed management available and downloaded many times across the world, attracting more students and revenue to the university
  • the university was now internationally recognised as a world leader in watershed management.

Although this scenario is purely a figment of my imagination, it is influenced by real and exciting work, much of which was developed as open access materials from the start, at the University of British Columbia:

Over to you

1. Does this strike you as a realistic scenario?

2. How useful are scenarios like this for thinking about the future? Could you use similar kinds of scenarios in your program planning or for faculty development, for instance?

3, If you have used scenarios for online learning in similar ways, would you be willing to share one?

4. Most of the elements of this scenario already exist at UBC. What I have done though is bring things together from different parts of the university into an integrated single scenario. What could be done within institutions to make this cross-disciplinary transfer of ideas and strategies easier to achieve? (It should be noted that UBC already has a Flexible Learning initiative, including a strategy team within the Provost’s office, which should help with this.)

Next

Just one more post to wrap up the chapter on Modes of Delivery and Open Education: the key takeaways from this chapter.

 

 

The implications of ‘open’ for course and program design: towards a paradigm shift

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10.10.1 Open and free Image: © Tony Bates 2015 CC BY-NC

10.10.1 An open and free beach, Pie de la Cuesta, Mexico
Image: © Tony Bates 2015 CC BY-NC

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I am usually very cautious not to use the term ‘paradigm shift’, but I do believe that the term is justified by the implications of open approaches to education, especially for higher education. This post aims to set out why this paradigm shift is slowly taking place.

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

The last post will be a scenario that illustrates the main points of this series of posts.

Although in recent years MOOCs have been receiving all the media attention, I believe that developments in open educational resources, ‘open textbooks, open research and open data will be far more important than MOOCs and far more revolutionary. Here are some reasons why.

10.10.1 Nearly all content will be free and open

Eventually most academic content will be easily accessible and freely available through the Internet – for anyone. This could well mean a shift in power from instructors to students. Students will no longer be dependent on instructors as their primary source of content. Already some students are skipping lectures at their local institution because the teaching of the topic is better and clearer on OpenLearn, MOOCs or the Khan Academy. If students can access the best lectures or learning materials for free from anywhere in the world, including the leading Ivy League universities, why would they want to get content from a middling instructor at Midwest State University? What is the added value that this instructor is providing for their students?

There are good answers to this question, but it means considering very carefully how content will be presented and shaped by an instructor that makes it uniquely different from what students can access elsewhere. For research professors this may include access to their latest, as yet unpublished, research; for other instructors, it may be their unique perspective on a particular topic, and for others, a unique mix of topics to provide an integrated, inter-disciplinary approach. What will not be acceptable to most students is repackaging of ‘standard’ content that can easily be found elsewhere on the Internet and at a higher quality.

Furthermore, if we look at knowledge management as one of the key skills needed in a digital age, it may be better to enable students to find, analyze, evaluate and apply content than for instructors to do it for them. If most content is available elsewhere, what students will look for increasingly from their local institutions is support with their learning, rather than the delivery of content. This means directing them to appropriate sources of content, helping when students are struggling with concepts, and providing opportunities for students to apply their knowledge and to develop and practice skills. It means giving prompt and relevant feedback as and when students need it. Above all, it means creating a rich learning environment in which students can study (see Chapter 5). It means moving teaching from information transmission to knowledge management, from selecting, structuring and delivering content to learner support.

Thus for most students within their university or college (with the possible exception of the most advanced research universities) the quality of the learning support will eventually matter more than the quality of content delivery, which they can get from anywhere. This is a major challenge for instructors who see themselves primarily as content experts.

10.2.2 Modularisation

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Figure 10.10.2 Four-sided pyramid, by Sol LeWitt, 1999 Image: Cliff, Flickr, CC Attribution 2.0

Figure 10.10.2 Four-sided pyramid, by Sol LeWitt, 1999
Image: Cliff, Flickr, © CC Attribution 2.0

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The creation of open educational resources, either as small learning objects but increasingly as short ‘modules’ of teaching, from anywhere between five minutes to one hour of material, and the increasing diversification of markets, is beginning to result in two of the key principles of OER being applied, re-use and re-mix. In other words, the same content, available in an openly accessible digital form, may be integrated into a range of different applications, and/or combined with other OER to create a single teaching module, course or program.

An early example of this was the development of an online, applied master’s program in educational technology at the University of British Columbia. The program started initially as a set of five courses leading to a post-graduate certificate. However, students were able to pay separately for each course, thus being able to take any one of the five courses or any combination, if that was their main interest. If they successfully passed all five courses they were awarded a certificate (nowadays, they would probably have received a badge for each course). Later, the university added five more courses to the existing five courses, and offered all ten courses as a master’s program. Students who had taken the previous five courses as a certificate were able to ladder these in and take the remaining five courses for a master (provided they met the university’s general admission requirements for graduate programs, i.e. they already had a bachelor degree). Tec de Monterrey, in Mexico, in partnership with UBC, took the materials and translated and adapted them into Spanish, enabling it to offer its own Master in Educational Technology throughout Latin America.

The Ontario government, through its online course development fund, is encouraging institutions to create OER. As a result, several universities have brought together faculty within their own institution but working in different departments that teach the same area of content (e.g. statistics) to develop ‘core’ OER that can be shared between departments. The logical next step would be for statistics faculty across the Ontario system to get together and develop an integrated set of OER modules on statistics that would cover substantial parts of the statistics curriculum. Working together would have the following benefits:

  • higher quality by pooling resources (two subject expert heads are better than one, combined with support from instructional designers and web producers)
  • more OER than one instructor or institution could produce
  • subject coherence and lack of duplication
  • more likelihood of faculty in one institution using materials created in another if they have had input to the selection and design of the OER from other institutions.

As the range and quality of OER increases, instructors (and students) will be able to build curriculum through a set of OER ‘building blocks’. The aim would be to reduce instructor time in creating materials (perhaps focusing on creating their own OER in areas of specific subject or research expertise), and using their time more in supporting student learning than in delivering content.

10.10.3 Disaggregation of services

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Figure 10.3 Disaggregation Image: © Aaron 'tango' Tan,   Flickr, CC Attribution 2.0

Figure 10.10.3 Disaggregation
Image: © Aaron ‘tango’ Tan, Flickr, CC Attribution 2.0

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Open education and digitization enable what has tended to be offered by institutions as a complete bundle of services to be split out and offered separately, depending on the market for education and the unique needs of individual learners. Learners will select and use those modules or services that best fit their needs. This is likely to be the pattern for lifelong learners in particular. Some early indications of this process are already occurring, although most of the really significant changes are yet to come:

  • admission and program counselling. This is a service already offered by Empire State University, a part of the State University of New York. Adult learners considering a return to study or a career change can receive mentoring about what courses and combinations they can take from within the college that fit with their previous life and their future wishes. In essence, within boundaries potential students are able to design their own degree. In the future, some institutions might specialise in this kind of service at a system level.
  • learner support. Students may have already determined what they want to study through the Internet, such as a MOOC. What they are looking for is help with their studies: how to write assignments, where to look for information, feedback on their work and thinking. They are not necessarily looking for a credit, degree or other qualification, but if they are they will pay for assessment separately. Currently, students pay private tutors for this service. However, it is feasible that institutions could also provide this service, provided that a suitable business model can be built.
  • assessment. Learners may feel that through prior study and work, they are able to take a challenge exam for credit. All they require from the institution is a chance to be assessed. Institutions such as Western Governors’ University or the Open Learning division of Thompson Rivers University are already offering this service., and this would be a logical next step for the many other universities or colleges with some form of prior learning assessment or PLAR.
  • qualifications. Learners may have acquired a range of credits, badges or certificates from a range of different institutions. The institution assesses these qualifications and experiences and helps the learner to take any further studies that are necessary, then awards the qualification. Prior learning assessment or PLAR is one step in this direction, but not the only one.
  • fully online courses and programs for learners who cannot or do not want to attend campus. The cost would be lower than for students receiving a full campus experience.
  • open access to content. The learner is not looking for any qualification, but wants access to content, particularly new and emerging knowledge. MOOCs are one example, but other examples include OpenLearn and open textbooks
  • the full campus experience. This would be the ‘traditional’ integrated package that full-time, campus-based students now receive. This would though be fully costed and much more expensive than any of the other disaggregated services.

Note that I have been careful not to link any of these services to a specific funding model. This is deliberate, because it could be:

  • covered through privatisation, where each service is separately priced and the user pays for that service (but not for others not used),
  • financed through a voucher system, whereby everyone at the age 18 is entitled to a notional amount of financial support from the state for post-secondary education, and can pay for a range of service from that voucher until their individual fund is exhausted, or
  • all or some services would be available for free as part of a publicly funded open education system.

Whatever the funding model, institutions will need to be able to price different services accurately. In any case, there is now an increasing diversity of learners’ needs, from high school students wanting full-time education, graduate students wanting to do research, and lifelong learners, most of whom will have already passed through a publicly funded higher education system, wanting to keep learning either for vocational or personal reasons.  This increasing diversity of needs requires a more flexible approach to providing educational opportunities in a digital age. Disaggregation of services and new models of funding, combined with increased accessibility to free, open content, are some ways in which this flexibility can be provided.

10.10.4 ‘Open’ course designs

The use of open educational resources could play out in a number of ways, including:

  • by students, in a learner-centered teaching approach that focuses on students accessing content on the Internet (and in real life) as part of developing knowledge, skills and competencies defined by the instructor, or (for advanced learners) being managed by learners themselves. However, this would not be restricted to officially approved open educational resources, but to everything on the Internet, because one of the core skills students will need is how to assess and evaluate different sources of information;
  • by a consortium of instructors or institutions creating common learning materials within a broader program context, that can be shared both within and outside the consortium. However, not only would the content be available, but also the underlying instructional principles, learning outcomes, learner assessment strategies, what learner support is needed, learner activities, and program evaluation techniques, so that other instructors or learners can adapt to their own context. This approach is already being taken by

We have already seen that the increasing availability of high quality open content may result in a shift from information transmission by the instructor to knowledge management by the learner. Earlier in the book, we also discussed a greater focus on skills development embedded within a subject domain than on the memorisation of content. Both these developments will enable the development of skills needed in a digital age.

These developments are likely to lead to a severe reduction in lecture-based teaching and a move towards more project work, problem-based learning and collaborative learning. It will also result in a move away from fixed time and place written examinations, to more continuous, portfolio-based forms of assessment.

The role of the instructor then will shift to providing guidance to learners on where and how to find content, how to evaluate the relevance and reliability of content, what content areas are core and what peripheral, and to helping students analyse, apply and present information, within a strong learning design that focuses on clearly defined learning outcomes, particularly with regard to the development of skills. Students will work mainly online and collaboratively, developing multi-media learning artefacts or demonstrations of their learning, managing their online portfolios of work, and editing and presenting selected work for assessment.

10.10.5 Conclusions

Despite all the hoopla around MOOCs, they are essentially a dead end with regard to providing learners who do not have adequate access to education with what they want: high quality qualifications. The main barrier to education is not lack of cheap content but lack of access to programs leading to credentials, either because such programs are too expensive, or because there are not enough qualified teachers, or both. Making content free is not a waste of time (if it is properly designed for secondary use), but it still needs a lot of time and effort to integrate it properly within a learning framework.

Open educational resources do have an important role to play in online education, but they need to be properly designed, and developed within a broader learning context that includes the critical activities needed to support learning, such as opportunities for student-instructor and peer interaction, and within a culture of sharing, such as consortia of equal partners and other frameworks that provide a context that encourages and supports sharing. In other words, OER need skill and hard work to make them useful, and selling them as a panacea for education does more harm than good.

Although open and flexible learning and distance education and online learning mean different things, the one thing they all have in common is an attempt to provide alternative means of high quality education or training for those who either cannot take conventional, campus-based programs, or choose not to.

Lastly, there are no insurmountable legal or technical barriers now to making educational material free. The successful use of OER does though require a particular mindset among both copyright holders – i.e. the creators of materials – and users – i.e. teachers and instructors who could use this material in their teaching. Thus the main challenge is one of cultural change.

In the end, a well-funded public higher education system remains the best way to assure access to higher education for the majority of the population. Having said that, there is enormous scope for improvements within that system. Open education and its tools offer a most promising way to bring about some much needed improvements.

10.10.6 The future is yours

This is just my interpretation of how approaches to ‘open’ content and resources could radically change the way we teach and how students will learn in the future. At the start of this chapter I created a scenario which suggests how this might play out in one particular program. More importantly, there is not just one future scenario, but many. The future will be determined by a host of factors, many outside the control of instructors. But the strongest weapon we have as teachers is our own imagination and vision. Open content and open learning reflect a particular philosophy of equality and opportunity created through education. There are many different ways in which we as teachers, and even more our learners, can decide to apply that philosophy. However, the technology now offers us many more choices in making these decisions.

Over to you

This is more an opinion piece, but based on an interpretation of real developments that are taking place at the moment. I’ve tried to balance the over-hyping of MOOCs and to a lesser extent OER with an analysis of what is still more potential than reality. As with all educational initiatives, whether these developments actually lead to significant change will depend on many factors, but nevertheless I believe the potential for change is real. More importantly, the changes I have outlined here are a response to the demands of a digital age.

I will be very interested in your response to this post

Next

A scenario that will attempt to provide a concrete vision of how these changes could play out. (I will probably place the scenario at the beginning of the chapter.)

 

Integrating open textbooks, open research and open data into teaching

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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)

Making sense of open educational resources

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© Giulia Forsyth, 2012

© Giulia Forsyth, 2012

This is the second of five posts on open education from Chapter 10 of my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. The first post was ‘What do we mean by “open” education‘?

Open educational resources are somewhat different from open learning, in that they are primarily content, while open learning includes both content and educational services, such as specially designed online materials, in-built learner support and assessment.

Open educational resources cover a wide range of formats, including open textbooks, video recorded lectures, YouTube clips, web-based textual materials designed for independent study, animations and simulations, diagrams and graphics, some MOOCs, or even assessment materials such as tests with automated answers. OER can also include Powerpoint slides or lecture notes. In order to be open educational resources, though, they must be freely available for at least educational use.

For a useful overview of the research on OERs, see the Review Project from the Open Education Group.

Principles of OER

David Wiley is one of the pioneers of OER. He and colleagues have suggested (Hilton et al., 2010) that there are four core principles of open publishing:

  • Reuse—The most basic level of openness. People are allowed to use all or part of the work for their own purposes (e.g., download an educational video to watch at a later time).
  • Redistribute—People can share the work with others (e.g., email a digital article to a colleague).
  • Revise—People can adapt, modify, translate, or change the work (e.g., take a book written in English and turn it into a Spanish audio book).
  • Remix—People can take two or more existing resources and combine them to create a new resource (e.g., take audio lectures from one course and combine them with slides from another course to create a new derivative work).

This open textbook you are reading meets all four criteria (it has a CC BY-NC license – see below). Users of OER though need to check with the actual license for re-use, because sometimes there are limitations, as with this book, which cannot be reproduced without permission for commercial reasons; for example, it cannot be turned into a book for profit by a commercial publisher, at least without permission from the author. To protect your rights as an author of OER usually means publishing under a Creative Commons or other open license.

Creative Commons licenses

This seemingly simple idea, of an ‘author’ creating a license enabling people to freely access and adapt copyright material, without charge or special permission, is one of the great ideas of the 21st century. This does not take away someone’s copyright, but enables that copyright holder to give permission for different kinds of use of their material without charge or any bureaucracy, such as writing for permission.

The spectrum of Creative Commons licenses

The are now several possible Creative Commons licenses:

  • CC BY Attribution: This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.
  • CC BY-SA This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This is particularly important if your work also includes other people’s materials licensed through the Creative Commons
  • CC BY-ND. This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.
  • CC BY-NC. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.
  • CC BY-NC-SA. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.
  • CC BY-NC-ND. This license is the most restrictive of the six main licenses, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

If you wish to offer your own materials as open educational resources, it is a relatively simple process to choose a licence and apply it to any piece of work (see Creative Commons Choose a License). If in doubt, check with a librarian.

Sources of OER

There are many ‘repositories’ of open educational resources (see for instance, for post-secondary education,  MERLOTOER Commons, and for k-12, Edutopia). However, when searching for possible open educational resources on the web, check to see whether or not the resource has a Creative Commons license or a statement giving permission for re-use. It may be common practice to use free (no cost) resources without worrying unduly about copyright, but there are risks without a clear license or permission for re-use. The Open Professionals Education Network has an excellent guide to finding and using OER.

Limitations of OER

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the take-up of OERs by instructors is still minimal, other than by those who created the original version. The main criticism is of the poor quality of many of the OERs available at the moment – Powerpoint slides, lecture notes, reams of text with no interaction, often available in PDFs that cannot easily be changed or adapted. Even some of the simulations available are crudely made, with poor graphics, and a design that fails to make clear what academic concepts they are meant to illustrate.

Falconer (2013), in a survey of potential users’ attitudes to OER in Europe, came to the following conclusion:

The ability of the masses to participate in production of OER – and a cultural mistrust of getting something for nothing – give rise to user concerns about quality. Commercial providers/publishers who generate trust through advertising, market coverage and glossy production, may exploit this mistrust of the free. Belief in quality is a significant driver for OER initiatives, but the issue of scale-able ways of assuring quality in a context where all (in principle) can contribute has not been resolved, and the question of whether quality transfers unambiguously from one context to another is seldom [addressed]. A seal of approval system is not infinitely scale-able, while the robustness of user reviews, or other contextualised measures, has not yet been sufficiently explored.

If OER are to be taken up by others than the creators of the OER, they will need to be well designed. It is perhaps not surprising then that the most used OER on iTunes University were the Open University’s, until the OU set up its own OER portal, FutureLearn, which offers as OER mainly textual materials from its courses designed specifically for online, independent study. Once again, good design is a critical factor in ensuring the quality of an OER.

Hampson (2013) has suggested another reason for the slow adoption of OER, mainly to do with the professional self-image of many university faculty. Hampson argues that faculty don’t see themselves as ‘just’ teachers, but creators and disseminators of new or original knowledge. Therefore their teaching needs to have their own stamp on it, which makes them reluctant to openly incorporate or ‘copy’ other people’s work. OER can easily be associated with ‘packaged’, reproductive knowledge, and not original work, changing faculty from ‘artists’ to ‘artisans’. It can be argued that this reason is absurd – we all stand on the shoulders of giants – but it is the self-perception that’s important, and for research professors, there is a grain of truth in the argument. It makes sense for them to focus their teaching on their own research. But then how many Richard Feynmans are there out there?

There is also considerable confusion between ‘free’ (no financial cost) and ‘open’, which is compounded by lack of clear licensing information on many OER. For instance, Coursera MOOCs are free, but not ‘open': it is a breach of copyright to use the material in a Coursera MOOC without permission. On the other hand, edX MOOCs usually have an ‘open’ license.

There is also the issue of the context-free nature of OER. Research into learning shows that content is best learned within context (situated learning), when the learner is active, and that above all, when the learner can actively construct knowledge by developing meaning and ‘layered’ understanding. Content is not static, nor a commodity like coal. In other words, content is not effectively learned if it is thought of as shovelling coal into a truck. Learning is a dynamic process that requires questioning, adjustment of prior learning to incorporate new ideas, testing of understanding, and feedback. These ‘transactional’ processes require a combination of personal reflection, feedback from an expert (i.e. the teacher or instructor) and even more importantly, feedback from and interaction with friends, family and fellow learners.

The weakness with open content is that by its nature, at its purest it is stripped of these developmental, contextual and ‘environmental’ components that are essential for effective learning. In other words, OER are just like coal, sitting there waiting to be loaded. Coal of course is still a very valuable product. But it has to be mined, stored, shipped and processed. More attention needs to be paid to those contextual elements that turn OER from raw ‘content’ into a useful learning experience. This means instructors need to build learning experiences or environments into which the OER will fit.

How to use OERs

Despite these limitations, teachers and instructors are increasingly creating open educational resources, or making resources freely available for others to use under a Creative Commons license. There are increasing numbers of depositories or portals where faculty can access open educational resources. As the quantity of OER expands, it is more likely that teachers and instructors will increasingly be able to find the resources that best suit their particular teaching context.

There are therefore several choices:

  • take OERs selectively from elsewhere, and incorporate or adapt them into your own courses
  • create your own digital resources for your own teaching, and make them available to others (see for instance Creating OER and Combining Licenses from Florida State University)
  • build a course around OER, where students have to find content to solve problems, write reports or do research on a topic
  • make use of a whole course from OERu, then build student activities and assessment and provide learner support for the course.

Learners can use OER to support any type of learning. For instance, MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW) could be used just for interest, or students who struggle with the topics in a classroom lecture for a credit course may well go to OCW to get an alternative approach to the same topic.

Still worth the effort

Despite some of the current limitations or weaknesses of OER, their use is likely to grow, simply because it makes no sense to create everything from scratch when good quality materials are freely and easily available. We have seen in Chapter 9 on selecting media that there is now an increasing amount of excellent open material available to teachers and instructors. This will only grow over time. We shall see in Section 10.10 that this is bound to change the way courses are designed and offered. Indeed, OER will prove to be one of the essential features of teaching in a digital age.

Over to you

Once again, this aims to be a fairly descriptive account of OERs. Is it accurate and balanced? Have I missed anything? (Open textbooks, open research and open data are discussed in the next post, and the implications of OER for the design of teaching is discussed in the post after that).

Next

Open textbooks, open research and open data

References

Falconer, I. et al. (2013) Overview and Analysis of Practices with Open Educational Resources in Adult Education in Europe Seville, Spain: European Commission Institute for Prospective Technological Studies

Hampson, K. (2013) The next chapter for digital instructional media: content as a competitive difference Vancouver BC: COHERE 2013 conference

Hilton, J., Wiley, D., Stein, J., & Johnson, A. (2010). The four R’s of openness and ALMS Analysis: Frameworks for open educational resources. Open Learning: The Journal of Open and Distance Learning, 25(1), 37–44.

Li, Y, MacNeill, S., and Kraan, W. (undated) Open Educational Resources – Opportunities and Challenges for Higher Education Bolton UK: JISC_CETIS

 

What do we mean by ‘open’ in education?

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Malala 2

I’m just a committed and even stubborn person who wants to see every child getting quality education

Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Prize speech, 2014

This is the first of five posts on ‘open-ness’ in education for my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, covering:

  • open education, open access and open universities (this post)
  • open educational resources
  • open textbooks, open research and open data
  • the implications of ‘open’ for course and program design
  • a scenario for a post-graduate program based on an approach to ‘open’ design.

Once again, I’m saving the best until the end!

Open education

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in open education, mainly related to open educational resources and MOOCs. Although in themselves OER and MOOCs are important developments, they tend to cloud other developments in open education that are likely have even more impact on education as a whole. It is therefore necessary to step back a little to get a broader understanding of open education. This will help us better understand the significance of these and other developments in open education, and their likely impact on teaching and learning now and in the future.

Open education as a concept

Open education can take a number of forms:

  • education for all: free or very low cost school, college or university education available to everyone within a particular jurisdiction, usually funded primarily through the state;
  • open access to programs that lead to full, recognised qualifications. These are offered by national open universities or more recently by the OERu;
  • open access to courses or programs that are not for formal credit, although it may be possible to acquire badges or certificates for successful completion. MOOCs are a good example;
  • open educational resources that instructors or learners can use for free. MIT’s OpenCourseware, which provides free online downloads of MIT’s video recorded lectures and support material, is one example;
  • open textbooks, online textbooks that are free for students to use;
  • open research, whereby research papers are made available online for free downloading;
  • open data, that is, data open to anyone to use, reuse, and redistribute, subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share.

Each of these developments is discussed in more detail below, except for MOOCs, which are discussed extensively in Chapter 7.

Education for all – except higher education

Open education is primarily a goal, or an educational policy. An essential characteristic of open education is the removal of barriers to learning. This means no prior qualifications to study, no discrimination by gender, age or religion, affordability for everyone, and for students with disabilities, a determined effort to provide education in a suitable form that overcomes the disability (for example, audio recordings for students who are visually impaired). Ideally, no-one should be denied access to an open educational program. Thus open learning must be scalable as well as flexible.

State-funded public education is the most extensive and widespread form of open education. For example, the British government passed the 1870 Education Act that set the framework for schooling of all children between the ages of 5 and 13 in England and Wales. Although there were some fees to be paid by parents, the Act established the principle that education would be paid for mainly through taxes and no child would be excluded for financial reasons. Schools would be administered by elected local school boards. Over time, access to publicly funded education in most economically developed countries has been widened to include all children up to the age of 18. UNESCO’s Education for All (EFA) movement is a global commitment to provide quality basic education for all children, youth and adults, supported, at least in principle, by 164 national governments. Nevertheless today there are still many millions of ‘out-of-school’ children worldwide.

Access to post-secondary or higher education though has been more limited, partly on financial grounds, but also in terms of ‘merit’. Universities have required those applying for university to meet academic standards determined by prior success in school examinations or institutional entry exams. This has enabled elite universities in particular to be highly selective. However, after the Second World War, the demand for an educated population, both for social and economic reasons, in most economically advanced countries resulted in the gradual expansion of universities and post-secondary education in general. In most OECD countries, roughly 35-60 per cent of an age cohort will go on to some form of post-secondary education. Especially in a digital age, there is an increasing demand for highly qualified workers, and post-secondary education is a necessary doorway to most of the best jobs. Therefore there is increasing pressure for full and free open access to post-secondary, higher or tertiary education.

However, as we saw in Chapter 1, the cost of widening access to ever increasing numbers results in increased financial pressure on governments and taxpayers. Following the financial crisis of 2008, many states in the USA found themselves in severe financial difficulties, which resulted in substantial cuts to the public education system. Thus solutions that enable increased access without a proportionate increase in funding are almost desperately being sought by governments and institutions. It is against this background that the recent interest in open education should be framed.

As a result, open is increasingly (and perhaps misleadingly) being associated with ‘free’. While the use of open materials may be free to the end user (learners), there are real costs in creating and distributing open education, and supporting learners, which has to be covered in some way. Thus a sustainable and adequate system of publicly funded education is still the best way to ensure access to quality education for all. Other forms of open education are steps towards achieving fully open access to higher education.

Open access in higher education

Open universities

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a rapid growth in the number of open universities that required no or minimal prior qualifications for entry. In the United Kingdom, for instance, less than 10 per cent of students leaving secondary education in 1969 went on to university. This was when the British government established the Open University, a distance teaching university open to all, using a combination of specially designed printed texts, and broadcast television and radio, with one week residential summer schools on traditional university campuses for the foundation courses (Perry, 1976). The Open University started in 1971 with 25,000 students in the initial entry intake, and now has over 200,000 registered students. It has been consistently ranked by government quality assurance agencies in the top ten U.K. universities for teaching, and in the top 30 for research, and number one for student satisfaction (out of over 180). It currently has over 200,000 registered students. However, it can no longer cover the full cost of its operation from government grants and there is now a range of different fees to be paid.

There are now nearly 100 publicly funded open universities around the world, including Canada (Athabasca University and Téluq). These open universities are often very large. The Open University of China has over one million enrolled undergraduate students and 2.4 million junior high school students, Anadolou Open University in Turkey has over 1.2 million enrolled undergraduate students, the Open University of Indonesia (Universitas Terbuka) almost half a million, and the University of South Africa 350,000. These large, degree awarding national open universities provide an invaluable service to millions of students who otherwise would have no access to higher education (see Daniel, 1998, for a good overview). It should be noted however that there is no publicly funded open university in the USA, which is one reason why MOOCs have received so much attention there.

As well as the national open universities, which usually offer their own degrees, there is also the OERu, which is basically an international consortium of mainly British Commonwealth and U.S. universities and colleges offering open access courses that enable learners either to acquire full credit for transfer into one of the partner universities or to build towards a full degree, offered by the university from which most credits have been acquired. Students pay a fee for assessment.

10.7.2 Limitations of open access education

Open, distance, flexible and online learning are rarely found in their ‘purest’ forms. No teaching system is completely open (minimum levels of literacy are required, for instance). Thus there are always degrees of open-ness. Open-ness has particular implications for the use of technology. If no-one is to be denied access, then technologies that are available to everyone need to be used. If an institution is deliberately selective in its students, it has more flexibility with regard to choice of technology for distance education. It can for instance require all students who wish to take an online or blended course to have their own computer and Internet access. It cannot do that if its mandate is to be open to all students. Truly open universities then will always be behind the leading edge of educational applications of technology.

Despite the success of many open universities, open universities often lack the status of a campus-based institution. Their degree completion rates are often very low (the U.K. OU’s degree completion rate is 22 per cent – Woodley and Simpson, 2014 – but nevertheless still higher for whole degree programs than for most single MOOC courses). And as noted previously, there are no comparable publicly funded open universities in the USA (the Western Governors’ University is the most similar), although private, for-profit universities such as the University of Phoenix fill a similar niche in the market.

Lastly, some of the open universities have been around for more than 40 years and have not always quickly adapted to changes in technology, partly because of their large size and their substantial prior investment in older technologies such as print and broadcasting, and partly because they do not wish to deny access to students without the latest technology. Thus they are now increasingly challenged by both an explosion in access to conventional universities, which has taken up some of their market, and new developments such as MOOCs and open educational resources, which are the topic of the next section.

Feedback, please

This part is fairly descriptive, but still necessary, I believe. However, here are some questions I have:

  1. Open education is a huge topic. Have I done it justice in the space available – given that I have separate sections on other aspects such as OERs and open textbooks?
  2. Do you think it is necessary to provide the context of ‘education for all’ and ‘open universities’ when discussing approaches to open-ness today? Or is all this now irrelevant? (I have to say this is the impression I’m sometimes given by advocates of OER and MOOCs).
  3. I clearly have a bias towards adequate, publicly funded education as the best way to increase access and open-ness. Do I push this too much, or not enough?
  4. Is there a future for open universities?

Up next

Open educational resources: principles; Creative Commons licenses; sources; limitations; how to use OERs

References

Daniel, J. (1998) Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media: Technology Strategies for Higher Education. London: Kogan Page

Perry, W. (1976) The Open University Milton Keynes: Open University Press

Woodley, A. and Simpson, O. (2014) ‘Student drop-out: the elephant in the room’ in Zawacki-Richter, O. and Anderson, T. (eds.) (2014) Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda Athabasca AB: AU Press, pp. 508

 

Nine questions to ask when choosing modes of delivery

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Figure 10.5.2 Can the study of haematology be done online?

Figure 10.6.1 Can the study of haematology be done online?

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This is the fifth of five posts on choosing modes of delivery for Chapter 10 of my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

The previous four posts were:

So now we come to the denouement! (Exciting, eh!). In this post (spoiler alert) I will suggest a methodology and a set of questions to ask in order to reach a decision for any particular course or program.

A suggested method for deciding between online and face-to-face delivery on solely pedagogic grounds

The standard work on this is by Dietmar Kennepohl, of Athabasca University (Kennepohl, 2010). I have drawn heavily on his work here, although the example given is mine.

The most pragmatic way to go about this is to trust the knowledge and experience of subject experts who are willing to approach this question in an open-minded way, especially if they are willing to work with instructional designers or media producers on an equal footing. So here is a process for determining when to go online and when not to, on purely pedagogical grounds, for a course that is being designed from scratch in a blended delivery mode.

I will choose a subject area at random: haematology (the study of blood), in which I am not an expert. But here’s what I would suggest if I was working with a subject specialist in this area:

Step 1: identify the main instructional approach.

This is discussed in some detail in Chapters 3 to 4, but here are the kinds of decision to be considered:

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Table 10.6.2 Which teaching approach?

Table 10.6.2 Which teaching approach?

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This should lead to a general plan or approach to teaching that identifies the teaching methods to be used in some detail. In the example of haematology, the instructor wants to take a more constructivist approach, with students developing a critical approach to the subject matter. In particular, she wants to relate the course specifically to certain issues, such as security in handling and storing blood, factors in blood contamination, and developing student skills in analysis and interpretation of blood samples.

Step 2. Identify the main content to be covered

and in particular any presentational requirements of the content, i.e. what do they need to know in this course? In haematology, this will mean understanding the chemical composition of blood, what its functions are, how it circulates through the body, what external factors may weaken its integrity or functionality, etc. In terms of presentation, dynamic activities need to be explained, and representing key concepts in colour will almost certainly be valuable. Observations of blood samples under many degrees of magnitude will be essential, i.e. the use of a microscope.

Step 3. Identify the main skills to be developed during the course

what they must be able to do with the content they are learning. This will probably include the ability to analyse the components of blood, such as the glucose and insulin levels, to interpret the results, and to present a report.

Let’s call Steps 2 and 3 the key learning objectives for the course.

Step 4: Analyse the most appropriate mode for each learning objective

Then create a table as in Figure 10.6.3

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Figure 10.5.4 Allocating mode of delivery

Figure 10.6.3 Allocating mode of delivery

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In this example, the instructor is keen to move as much as possible online, so she can spend as much time as possible with students, dealing with laboratory work and answering questions about theory and practice. She was able to find some excellent online videos of several of the key interactions between blood and other factors, and she was also able to find some suitable graphics and simple animations of the molecular structure of blood which she could adapt, as well as creating with the help of a graphics designer her own graphics. Indeed, she found she had to create relatively little new material or content herself.

The instructional designer also found some software that enabled students to design their own laboratory set-up for certain elements of blood testing which involved combining virtual equipment, entering data values and running an experiment.  However, there were still some skills that needed to be done hands-on in the laboratory, such as inserting glucose and using a ‘real’ microscope to analyse the chemical components of blood. However, the online material enabled the instructor to spend more time in the lab with students.

This is a crude method of determining the balance between face-to-face teaching and online learning for a blended learning course, but it least it’s a start. A similar kind of process was used in the early days of the Open University, when science faculty worked with BBC producers and instructional designers to decide between the use of text, audio, television, home experimental kits and a compulsory residential campus-based laboratory component for the foundation science program. The desired content and skills were identified then allocated across the different media. Because the residential component was the most expensive and the least flexible for students, the aim was to move as much as possible to the other modes, in order to keep to a minimum the residential component. This resulted in a highly successful program which won high praise and awards in science teaching at the time. In fact the Open University no longer has a compulsory residential component for its science courses.

10.6.2 Analyse the resources available

There is one more consideration besides the type of learners, the overall teaching method, and making decisions based on pedagogical grounds, and that is to consider the resources available.

This will need to take place in parallel with steps 1-4 above. In particular, the key resource is the time of the instructor. Careful consideration is needed about how best to spend the limited time available to this instructor. It may be all very well to identify a series of videos as the best way to capture some of the procedures for blood testing, but if these videos do not already exist in a format that can be freely used, shooting video specially for this one course may not be justified, in terms of either the time the instructor would need to spend on video production, or the costs of making the videos with a professional crew.

The availability and skill level of learning technology support from the institution will also be a critical factor. Can the instructor get the support of an instructional designer and media producers? If not, it is likely that much more will be done face-to-face than online, unless the instructor is already very experienced in online learning.

Are there resources available to buy out the instructor for one semester to spend time on course design? Many institutions have development funds for innovative teaching and learning, and there may be external grants or creating new open educational resources, for instance. This will increase the practicality and hence the likelihood of more of the teaching moving online.

We shall see that as more and more learning material becomes available as open educational resources, teachers and instructors will be freed up from mainly content presentation to focusing on more interaction with students, both online and face to face. However, although open educational resources are becoming increasingly available, they may not exist in the topics required or they may not be of adequate quality in terms of either content or production standards.

10.6.3 Questions for consideration in choosing modes of delivery

In summary, here are some questions to consider, when designing a course from scratch:

1. What kind of learners are likely to take this course? What are their needs? Which mode(s) of delivery will be most appropriate to these kinds of learners? Could I reach more or different types of learners by choosing a particular mode of delivery?

2. What is my view of how learners can best learn on this course? What is my preferred method(s) of teaching to facilitate that kind of learning on this course?

3. What is the main content (facts, theory, data, processes) that needs to be covered on this course?

4. What are the main skills that learners will need to develop on this course? What are the ways in which they can develop/practice these skills?

5. How can technology help with the presentation of content on this course?

6. How can technology help with the development of skills on this course?

7. When I list the content and skills to be taught, which of these could be taught:

  • fully online
  • partly online and partly face-to-face
  • can only be taught face-to-face?

8. What resources do I have available for this course in terms of:

  • professional help from instructional designers and media producers
  • possible sources of funding for release time and media production
  • good quality open educational resources

9. In the light of the answers to all these questions, which mode of delivery makes most sense?

Feedback

1. If anyone’s a haematologist out there, first forgive me, then tell me how to make it better. (I chose haematology, because I was asked when giving a presentation how would I apply this method to haematology – I had to think quickly on my feet.)

2. Would this method work for you? If not, how are decisions made in your institution about which mode to use? In particular, would you have to go to an unrealistic level of detail to do this for a whole course?

Next up

Open education and open educational resources.

Reference

Kennepohl, D. (2010) Accessible Elements: Teaching Science Online and at a Distance Athabasca AB: Athabasca University Press

 

Desperately seeking the unique pedagogical characteristics of face-to-face teaching

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Figure 10.5.1 The magic of the campus? Image: © Cambridge Advanced Studies Program, Cambridge University, U.K., 2015

Figure 10.5.1 The magic of the campus?
Image: © Cambridge Advanced Studies Program, Cambridge University, U.K., 2015

This is the fourth of five posts on choosing modes of delivery for my online open textbook Teaching in a Digital Age. The post questions the specific advantages of face-to-face teaching over online teaching.

Identifying the unique characteristics of face-to-face teaching in a digital world

Sanjay Sarma, Director of MIT’s Office of Digital Learning, made an attempt at MIT’s LINC 2013 conference to identify the difference between campus-based and online learning, and in particular MOOCs. He made the distinction between MOOCs as open courses available to anyone, reflecting the highest level of knowledge in particular subject areas, and the ‘magic’ of the on-campus experience, which he claimed is distinctly different from the online experience. He argued that it is difficult to define or pin down the magic that takes place on-campus, but referred to ‘in-the-corridor’ conversations between faculty and staff, hands-on engineering with other students outside of lectures and scheduled labs, and the informal learning that takes place between students in close proximity to one another. Not mentioned but implicit was also the very high standard of students admitted to MIT, and the impact of continuous contact on campus between student and professor, none of which of course is available to MOOC students.

This is a useful starting point in trying to identify the unique characteristics of face-to-face teaching. In doing so, it may be helpful to identify whether or not this can or has been done equally well online. Sharma makes the following claims for the uniqueness of face-to-face teaching, or what he called ‘the magic of the campus':

  • informal, random conversations between students
  • informal, random conversations between faculty and students
  • lab work with access outside school hours

There are a couple of other characteristics that Sharma hinted at but did not mention explicitly in his presentation:

  • the very high standard of the students admitted to MIT, who ‘push’ each other to even higher standards
  • the importance of the social networks developed by students at MIT that provide opportunities later in life.

I leave it to you to judge whether these are unique features of face-to-face teaching. Those of us who have taught extensively online are aware that there are also opportunities online for informal, random conversations between students, and also between students and faculty, through online discussion forums, Facebook or other media. The issue is: are they of the same quality?

Easy and frequent access to laboratories is a much more serious contender for uniqueness, as this is difficult to provide online, although there is an increasing number of developments in remote labs and the use of simulations.

In the absence of specific research on the unique characteristics of face-to-face teaching, we can look at some of the more general characteristics of media discussed in Chapter 8, and see where face-to-face teaching fits. Table 10.5.1 is my personal attempt at analysis along these dimensions.

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Table 10.2.1 Media characteristics of face-to-face teaching

Table 10.5.1 Media characteristics of face-to-face teaching

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  • This level of analysis unfortunately does not get us very far. These are not necessarily unique characteristics of face-to-face teaching. Discussion can be managed just as easily online, and social media may provide even richer means of networking, for instance. It doesn’t really get to unique pedagogical advantages in the way we have seen with text, audio, video, computing and social media.

In the end, an analysis of the unique pedagogical advantages of face-to-face teaching over the use of other media all comes down to personal experience and opinions, and even more so, personal experience strongly influenced by working within one mode rather than another. We do not have good guidelines for distinguishing between what is best done face-to-face on purely pedagogical criteria, and we certainly have no research on this. Indeed, it would be hard to design such research. For instance let’s suppose that somehow we found that face-to-face conversations are more academically challenging than online conversations between students. But if the students  who want to take this course cannot get to campus, what’s the value of this finding to them? Even more likely, we would find that under the right circumstances, either mode can work just as well. The important thing then is to ensure the right circumstances are present for each mode of delivery. In other words, student needs and the available resources are going to be much stronger discriminators in determining whether to use face-to-face teaching than pedagogical advantages – unless someone can come up with evidence-based, convincing arguments for the uniqueness of face-to-face teaching..

Nevertheless, if for other reasons the decision is made to choose blended learning as the mode of delivery, and this is likely to become more and more common, we are still left with the very practical dilemma of deciding what, in a blended learning context, is best done online and what face-to-face. I will suggest a method to do this in the next section.

Feedback

Now this is where I really need input, especially from enthusiasts for face-to-face teaching. I have found no convincing evidence-based research that points to clear advantages for face-to-face teaching over online teaching. I’ve taught quite a bit in classrooms across a relatively wide range of ages, but most of my teaching in the last twenty years has been mainly online at a post-secondary level. I really find it difficult to identify many areas outside lab and practical work where there is a clear advantage for face-to-face teaching. I’m not implying there are not any advantages; I just want them identified, and I suspect these are likely to be very subject specific.

So given what we know can be done very well online, such as online discussion, presentation of content, and many areas of intellectual skills development, what are the unique pedagogical characteristics of face-to-face teaching, what can it do much better than online learning?

Next up

A methodology for determining what to do face to face, and what to do online, in a blended learning context. So this post and the next – indeed all five on this topic – really need to be read together.

Mode of delivery: Learners as a determining factor

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Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

This is the third of five posts on choosing between different modes of delivery as part of Chapter 10 for my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

As always, start with the learners

Fully online/distance learners

Research (see for instance Dabbagh, 2007) has repeatedly shown that fully online courses suit some types of student better than others: older, more mature students; students with already high levels of education; part-time students who are working or with families. This applies both to formal, credit based online courses and even more so to MOOCs (see Chapter 7) and other non-credit courses.

Today, ‘distance’ is more likely to be psychological or social, rather than geographical. For instance, from survey data regularly collected from students when I was Director of Distance Education and Technology at the University of British Columbia:

  • less than 20 per cent gave reasons related to distance or travel for taking an online course.
  • most of the 10,000 or so UBC students (there are over 60,000 students in total) taking at least one fully online course are not truly distant. The majority (over 80 per cent) live in the Greater Vancouver Metropolitan Area, within 90 minutes commute time to the university, and almost half within the relatively compact City of Vancouver. Comparatively few (less than 10 per cent) live outside the province (although this proportion is slowly growing each year.)
  • on the other hand, two thirds of UBC’s online students have paid work of one kind or another.
  • many undergraduate students in their fourth year take an online course because the face-to-face classes are ‘capped’ because of their large size, or because they are short of the required number of credits to complete a degree. Taking a course online allows these students to complete their program without having to come back for another year.
  • the main reason for most UBC students taking fully online courses is the flexibility they provide, given the work and family commitments of students and the difficulty caused by timetable conflicts for face-to-face classes.

This suggests that fully online courses are more suitable for more experienced students with a strong motivation to take such courses because of the impact they have on their quality of life. In general, online students need more self-discipline in studying and a greater motivation to study to succeed. This does not mean that other kinds of students can’t benefit from online learning, but extra effort needs to go into the design and support of such students online.

The research also suggests that these skills of independent learning need to be developed while students are on campus. In other words, online learning, in the form of blended learning, should be deliberately introduced and gradually increased as students work through a program, so by the time they graduate, they have the skills to continue to learn independently – a critical skill for the digital age. If courses are to be offered fully online in the early years of a university career, then they will need to be exceptionally well designed with a considerable amount of online learner support – and hence are likely to be expensive to mount, if they are to be successful.

On the other hand, fully online courses really suit working professionals. In a digital age, the knowledge base is continually expanding, jobs change rapidly, and hence there is strong demand for on-going, continuing education, often in ‘niche’ areas of knowledge. Online learning is a convenient and effective way of providing such lifelong learning. So far, apart from MBAs and teacher education, public universities have been slow in recognising the importance of this market, which at worse could be self-financing, and at best could bring in much needed additional revenues. The private, for-profit universities, though, such as the University of Phoenix, Laureate University and Capella University in the USA, have been quick to move into this market.

One other factor to consider is the impact of changing demographics. In jurisdictions where the school-age population is starting to decline, expanding into lifelong learning markets may be essential for maintaining student enrollments. Fully online learning may therefore turn out to be a way to keep some academic departments alive.

However, to make such lifelong learning online programs work, institutions need to make some important adjustments. In particular there must be incentives or rewards for faculty to move in this direction and there needs to be some strategic thinking about the best way to offer such programs. The University of British Columbia has developed a series of very successful, fully online, self-financing professional masters’ programs.  For example, students can initially try one or two courses in the Graduate Certificate in Rehabilitation before applying to the master’s program. The certificate can be completed in less than two years while working full-time, and paying per course rather than for a whole Master’s year, providing the flexibility needed by lifelong learners. UBC also partnered with Tec de Monterrey in Mexico, with the same program being offered in English by UBC and in Spanish by Tec de Monterrey, as a means of kick-starting its very successful Master in Educational Technology program, which over time has doubled the number of graduate students in UBC’s Faculty of Education. We shall see these examples are important when we examine the importance of modular programming in Chapter 11.

Online learning also offers the opportunity to offer programs where an institution has unique research expertise but insufficient local students to offer a full master’s program. By going fully online, perhaps in partnership with another university with similar expertise but in a different jurisdiction, it may be able to attract students from across the country or even internationally, enabling the research to be more widely disseminated and to build a cadre of professionals in newly emerging areas of knowledge – again an important goal in a digital age.

Blended learning learners

In terms of blended learning, the ‘market’ is less clearly defined than for fully online learning. The benefit for students is increased flexibility, but they will still need to be relatively local in order to attend the classroom-based sessions. The main advantage is for the 50 per cent or more of students, at least in North America, who are working more than 15 hours a week to help with the cost of their education and to keep their student debt as low as possible. Also, blended learning provides an opportunity for the gradual development of independent learning skills, as long as this is an intentional teaching strategy.

The main reason for moving to blended learning then is more likely to be academic, providing necessary hands-on experiences, offering an alternative to large lecture classes, and making student learning more active and accessible whenstudying online. This will benefit most students who can easily access a campus on a regular basis.

Face-to-face learners

Many students coming straight from high school will be looking for social, sporting and cultural opportunities that a campus-based education provides. Also students lacking self-confidence or experience in studying are likely to prefer face-to-face teaching, providing that they can access it in a relatively personal way.

However, the academic reasons are less clear, particularly if students are faced with very large classes and relatively little contact with professors in the first year or so of their programs. In this respect, smaller, regional institutions, which generally have smaller classes and more contact with instructors, have an advantage.

We shall see later in this chapter that blended and fully online learning offer the opportunity to re-think the whole campus experience so that better support is provided to on-campus learners in their early years in post-secondary education. More importantly, as more and more studying moves online, universities and colleges will be increasingly challenged to identify the unique pedagogical advantages of coming to campus, so that it will still be worthwhile to get on the bus to campus every morning.

We shall see that identifying the likely student market for a course or program is the strongest factor in deciding on mode of delivery.

Feedback

1. Given that students can do a lot of their studying online, what kind of students do you think will benefit most from face-to-face teaching? All students, if they can get to campus? If so, why?

2. Is there a particular kind of student who benefits more from a blended learning approach than from full time face-to-face teaching?

3. What do you think are the implications of widening the traditional ‘for credit’ market from high school leavers to lifelong learners? Do you agree that this would require some major changes in the way programs are offered? What would be the implication for Continuing Studies or Extension departments?

Next up

Seeking the unique characteristics of face-to-face teaching. This will look at how to identify what to do online and what to do on-campus in a blended learning course.

Reference

Dabbagh, N. (2007) The online learner: characteristics and pedagogical implications Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, Vol. 7, No.3